WASHINGTON - The hot new topic in Congress is retirement savings.
Republicans and Democrats both are trying to make political hay by capitalizing on baby-boomers' growing concerns about Social Security and their retirement income.
"The polls show that people care about these issues, and once the polls show that people care, it's amazing how soon politicians do things after that," said Randolf H. Hardock, partner at Davis & Harman, and a former Treasury Department benefits tax counsel.
That notable baby-boomer Bill Clinton, who turns 50 this year, made pensions a presidential campaign issue in a Rose Garden ceremony in April.
But that's just the tip of the iceberg. In fact, a bipartisan group of lawmakers formed an ad hoc Steering Committee on Retirement Income Security for Americans in March and already has held three luncheons with pension experts. Among the issues discussed are the impact of proposals to overhaul the nation's tax system on pension plans, as well as ways to fill gaps in the private pension system.
Members of Congress are almost jostling each other to hold hearings, introduce legislation or simply speak out on retirement issues. Among the activities:
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, will introduce a bill later this month that would permanently exempt public pension plans from having to prove they don't favor top officials over rank-and-file workers.
Reps. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md., and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, are planning to introduce identical legislation in the House, which would effectively permanently exempt public funds from conducting the costly anti-discrimination testing to which private plans are subjected.
Sen. Bob Graham, D-Fla., who sits on the Senate Finance Committee and represents a state with a large population of retirees, just returned from Chile after studying the successful privatization of its social security system. He's examining similar proposals to shore up the ailing U.S. system.
Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is crafting legislation to allow people who lose their jobs to borrow from their 401(k) plans without paying penalties or shutting down their plans. Under the proposal, those who exhaust unemployment benefits could borrow up to $50,000 or 50% of their 401(k) retirement assets, whichever is less. The proposal also would apply to existing 401(k) plan loans; most companies usually require repayment as soon as employees quit or are laid off.
Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., is expected to play a visible role in the next session of Congress in pushing for passage of comprehensive pension legislation that would enable more workers to set up individual retirement accounts, encourage small businesses to offer retirement plans and impose deterrents to prevent employers from raiding pension plans. Earlier this year, he introduced a bill to create a federal panel to study the looming retirement income crisis.
*Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Aging, plans to introduce a comprehensive bill on increasing pension savings before Congress adjourns in the fall, said Kristin Hyde, a spokeswoman. Mr. Gregg also intends to recommend measures to strengthen Social Security.
Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun, D-Ill., who introduced legislation to ensure married women are not deprived of their fair share of pensions, is working on other legislation to ensure women and lower-paid workers have access to retirement plans they can transfer from job to job.
Both Ms. Boxer and Ms. Moseley-Braun are examining ways to ensure married women receive their fair share of pensions.
And Ms. Moseley-Braun and Mr. Hatch are among two of many legislators who have begun studying ways to make pensions more portable as U.S. companies continue downsizing.
Ms. Moseley-Braun is part of a task force appointed by Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., to examine ways to end middle-class anxieties over a potential loss of jobs and stagnant wages. She also is the first woman to fully sit on the powerful Senate Finance Committee. Pension experts say she is well positioned to fill the vacuum after Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., and Bill Bradley, D-N.J., two big champions of pensions, retire in November.
Pensions is "one of the next big issues we have to face as a country, given the rate of low savings and the big bulge of baby boomers (heading for retirement) and the status of the Social Security system," said Karen Fredrickson, chief of staff for Mr. Pomeroy. He co-chairs the committee of lawmakers studying retirement issues.
Lynn D. Dudley, director of retirement policy at the Association of Private Pension and Welfare Plans, Washington, said she's gotten numerous telephone calls from lawmakers wanting to familiarize themselves with pension-related matters. One caller was Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind., known for his interest in foreign affairs; he took a run this year at the Republican presidential nomination.
Although Mr. Lugar does not sit on any committees with jurisdiction over pension issues, he supports efforts to streamline pension rules and "realizes pension rules need to be simplified to encourage small businesses to offer pension plans," according to Troy Bryan, a legislative aide.
Others who have put out feelers to pension lobbyists include Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., and Rep. Phil Crane, R-Ill., both members of the House Ways and Means Committee, where pension legislation typically originates.
Industry observers suggest congressional interest in retirement issues is not surprising.
Mr. Hardock predicts a continuing flurry of pension-related legislation as a larger segment of the population approaches retirement and cracks in the Social Security system widen.