Democrats and Republicans in Congress agree that the U.S. has a multiemployer pension crisis. What they can't agree on is how to solve it.
Waiting for a perfect solution to this thorny, complicated problem will be even more expensive than the multibillion-dollar price tag that comes with the proposal that is pending.
The House Ways and Means Committee on July 10 approved a bipartisan bill, which has nine Republicans among its 201 co-sponsors, that would move toward addressing this longstanding problem.
Despite sponsorship from members of both parties, the committee vote on H.R 397, the Rehabilitation for Multiemployer Pensions Act — commonly referred to as the Butch Lewis Act — came along party lines. And in these very partisan times in Congress and the country, that could doom to stagnation a problem that can't wait indefinitely.
In addition to the 1.3 million people and their families facing the uncertainty of pension benefit cuts, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.'s multiemployer program is moving toward insolvency.
Without congressional action, participants in struggling plans face benefit cuts of 50% or more. And when the PBGC multiemployer program itself becomes insolvent — projected to happen by 2025 — those cuts will deepen to 90%, lawmakers heard earlier this year.
Ahead of the Ways and Means vote this month, Reps. Richard Neal, D-Mass., and Kevin Brady, R-Texas, the committee chairman and ranking member, agreed that the crisis exists for the roughly 130 multiemployer plans at risk of running out of money.
A similar consensus existed last year when the congressional Joint Select Committee on Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans convened but failed to find a solution to the financial crisis by its self-imposed Nov. 30 deadline. With Congress' plate already full, and an election looming in 2020, the time to act is short.
Just before that deadline passed, the co-chairman, former Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, said in a statement: "We believe a bipartisan solution is attainable. ... We understand that the longer that these problems persist, the more burdensome and expensive for taxpayers they become to address."
There are clearly disagreements about the pending bill and the joint select committee's 2018 proposals, but there are ideas — federally financed loan programs, funding transfers to the PBGC, variable benefits — that along with other changes would help address the problems.
Congress began — in the Pension Protection Act of 2006 and the Kline-Miller Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014 — to tackle them. It is time to continue moving forward toward that goal, understanding that no single effort will solve what's been decades in the making.