WASHINGTON - Forget about pension legislation being enacted this year.
While the Nov. 7 elections resulted in the passage of retirement-related ballot measures in Kansas and Alabama, the stalemate over the presidential election seems likely to kill any chances for federal pension legislation in 2000.
Granted, lawmakers returning to Washington Nov. 13 to finish working on federal spending bills could piggyback the big Republican tax bill - which includes a huge pension package - onto them. Republican lawmakers initially had hoped to send the legislation to the White House for President Clinton's signature before the end of the session.
But now, with the outcome of the Nov. 7 election still up in the air, the Republican majority may be less inclined to make concessions in the bill to appease the president, some sources said. Mr. Clinton, in an Oct. 26 letter to the Republican leadership, had said he would veto the bill if it did not include the changes he wanted (Pensions & Investments, Oct. 30).
Moreover, because Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush has his own plans for a sizable tax bill, and because the federal budget surplus that would be used to sop up the tax cuts is not unlimited, the Republican majority might prefer to let Mr. Bush put his imprimatur on the legislation, they said.
Mark J. Ugoretz, president of the Washington-based ERISA Industry Committee, is one of a group of pension lobbyists who met with White House officials late last week to press for enactment of the pensions package and tax bill this year. He is still hoping lawmakers and the White House can be persuaded to enact the legislation this year, but he admits that getting Republican and Democratic lawmakers to work together in a lame-duck session "is a problem."
Jon Breyfogle, a partner at The Groom Law Group, Washington, also holds out little hope Republican lawmakers will want to pass the tax bill in the next few days. Republicans "won't get any election day benefit from it now," said Mr. Breyfogle, who was a senior legislative officer at the Labor Department in President George Bush's administration.
On the other hand, others say that the close election results might make Republicans more willing to seek a compromise because their majority in Congress has been shaved, increasing the possibility of gridlock in the next session.
"Republicans won't feel emboldened with a 50-50 or 51-49 majority in the Senate," said Dallas L. Salisbury, president of the Washington-based Employee Benefit Research Institute. "It is going to go from difficult to exceedingly difficult" to pass legislation in the Senate.
Before the elections, the Republicans held a 54-46 majority in the Senate, but Democrats have picked up three seats - and could gain one more, making it 50-50, depending on the results of absentee ballots in Washington state; or lose one if Sen. Joseph Lieberman becomes vice president. In the House, Republicans held 223 seats before the elections but have lost two, while the Democrats control 212, up from 210 before Nov. 7.
Frank B. McArdle, head of the Washington office of Hewitt Associates, also suggests that Republican senators might want to seek enactment of the tax and pension bill as a last hurrah for Sen. William V. Roth Jr., R-Del., chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, who lost his re-election bid.
Even if that does not happen, sources agreed the pension bill will be on the legislative agenda of the 107th Congress next year.
Republicans and Democrats disagree on minor aspects of the legislation, but for the most part support the bigger goal of making it easier for middle-class Americans to save more for retirement and take their retirement savings from job to job.
Social Security uncertainty
The prospects for Social Security reform are less certain.
Mr. Bush, who favors diverting some of the money from the Social Security trust funds to set up individual accounts, has said that if he moves into the White House, he will appoint a bipartisan commission to make recommendations on fixing the financially troubled system.
But that commission could take the better part of next year to come up with its recommendations and by then the traditional honeymoon granted the new president will be over, sources said.
Moreover, Democratic lawmakers are expected to fight efforts to tinker with the system. And results of national exit polls on Nov. 7 suggest Americans are wary of such efforts. Of those surveyed, 14% said that Social Security mattered most to them after the economy and jobs. Of these, 58% voted for Vice President Al Gore, and 39% voted for Mr. Bush.
"It says that for the people who really care about Social Security, private accounts are scary," Mr. McArdle said.
Meanwhile, despite changes in leadership at three of the four congressional committees with jurisdiction over retirement issues, Washington pension experts expect few changes in the pending pension legislation, largely because it has already been debated extensively in Congress over the past few years, and resembles the bill Mr. Clinton vetoed last year as part of a bigger tax package.
However, the new chairmen of the Senate Finance Committee, the House Ways and Means Committee, and the House Education and the Workforce Committee will set their own agendas, and might not have the same interest in retirement issues as the current chairmen.
Sen. Grassley to chairman
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, now the senior Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, expects to be named chairman. Mr. Grassley, currently chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, and co-sponsor, along with Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., of broad pension legislation, also has an interest in Social Security reform. He co-sponsored the Bipartisan Social Security Reform Act of 2000, which would create individual accounts. He also co-sponsored the Social Security KidSave Accounts Act, which would set up an individual account for each child, and the Senior Citizens' Freedom to Work Act of 2000, which will let those collecting Social Security continue working without a reduction in their benefits.
Last year, Mr. Grassley also voted for the Older Workers Pension Protection Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, that would have prevented companies from stopping pension accruals for some employees when they change their pension plans, notably from traditional plans into cash balance plans.
In the House, Rep. Philip M. Crane, R-Ill., is next in line for leadership of the House Ways & Means Committee to replace Rep. Bill Archer, R-Texas, who is retiring. But Rep. William M. Thomas, R-Calif., is expected to make a bid for the chairmanship. Mr. Crane introduced legislation last year that would let individuals donate their IRAs to charity without paying taxes on the buildup of assets.
Mr. Thomas, who in general has a greater interest in health care than retirement issues, nonetheless also has been the key sponsor of legislation favoring the expansion of IRAs, and introduced legislation mirroring that introduced in the Senate.
"For the last 10 years, he has been the Republicans' lead on IRAs in the House," said Randolf H. Hardock, partner in the Washington law firm of Davis & Harman.
ERISA elimination proposed
Mr. Thomas favors an individual, rather than employer-sponsored, approach to employee benefits. In an Oct. 13 speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he proposed eliminating the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. "It would be an individual structure," he said. "Every worker should have a backpack, and in that backpack are those key and crucial life aspects carried with them rather than having to remain at a place of work because they didn't meet some arbitrary time factor at that place of work."
On the House Education and Workforce Committee, Thomas E. Petri, R-Wis., is in line to succeed Mr. Archer, but does not have a record on pension issues, so it is difficult to predict what his interests might be, sources said.
Meanwhile, in Kansas, voters overwhelmingly approved a measure that would allow the $10 billion Kansas Public Employees' Retirement System, Topeka, to invest in bank stocks. KPERS has been prohibited from investing in bank stocks since 1859 when banks were unregulated. KPERS officials claim the ban caused it to miss out on about $45 million in investment gains in 1997, and costs the system about $1 million a year to monitor.
The constitutional amendment overturning the ban was favored by 61% of voters.
KPERS Deputy Secretary Jack Hawn said the Legislature still must approve allowing the system to invest in bank stocks; officials will ask that a bill be introduced in the next legislative session in January.
In Alabama, Chilton, Clay, Marion, Sumter and Lowndes counties passed legislation that would phase out the supernumerary system that prevents elected officials from participating in the public employees' system.
"About half of our counties have now passed this amendment, half of them have not. They have not been able to pass it as a statewide amendment" in the past, said Marc Reynolds, legislative counsel, Retirement Systems of Alabama in Montgomery.
A similar ballot measure did not pass in California. Proposition 33 would have let 30 state senators and 79 assemblymen participate in the California Public Employees' Retirement System, Sacramento.
There were no big surprises in the elections for state treasurers, either.
Most incumbents were re-elected to their posts in the 10 states that held elections for new treasurers. In Florida, Republican contender Tom Gallagher, a former state treasurer, was elected to his old job. He replaces Democrat Bill Nelson, who was elected to the U.S. Senate. And in North Carolina, Democrat Richard Moore was elected to replace Harlan Boyles, the dean of state treasurers, who retired. In Pennsylvania, incumbent Republican Barbara Hafer defeated Catherine Baker Knoll, the Democratic contender and former treasurer.