Like a child who has outgrown his clothes, ERISA after 20 years needs new threads, said John Erlenborn, one of the law's founding fathers.
"The problem we perceived was that there were people who were not getting the benefits they anticipated," Mr. Erlenborn said.
"One thing we didn't address was looking at the working population, whether there was sufficient coverage. At that time we saw growing coverage, and it was a matter of managing these plans that were expanding and people were participating in, so coverage was really not a problem. I think now it's a different situation," he said.
Mr. Erlenborn, a 20-year Illinois congressman who retired from his post 10 years after ERISA was enacted, said that in order to address the question of adequate coverage, a national retirement income policy is needed. This policy would not be a law, but a list of principles and guidelines that would delineate how pension rules and regulations would be organized.
"When someone suggests something, whether it be taxing benefits or reducing benefits or taxing assets, you'd have these principles to refer to, to ask how does this fit into the scheme of protecting people's retirement income," Mr. Erlenborn said.
"But Congress today is responding to pressures in the pension area. And it's not necessarily in the right area, which would be how to protect people," Mr. Erlenborn said. "Congress is being pressured (in the pension area) to figure out how to raise revenue this year and next, so that we can spend the money someplace else.
"So the money that ought to be going to protecting people's retirement is now going to filling potholes and providing subsidies for growing tobacco and all the other things that members do to get votes back home," he said.
The national income retirement policy is separate from a mandatory universal pension system. In fact, Mr. Erlenborn said a mandatory system is unnecessary - it's already in place through Social Security. A second system would be redundant and burdensome on employers, he said.
"If people really want a mandatory universal pension system, I tell them they have it already. If you want it to be more generous, tell Congress to raise the benefits and raise taxes to pay for them," he said. Congress "could reduce benefits in Social Security and increase benefits on the private side. Employers would be taking - once again - the brunt of Congress shifting liabilities away from the public to the private sector."
Mr. Erlenborn said the idea of a national retirement income policy may be enacted soon. In the early '90s, then Sen. Lloyd Bentsen introduced an amendment to proposed legislation that would have created a commission to establish a retirement policy, Mr. Erlenborn said.
If Mr. Bentsen's support could be activated now as Treasury Secretary, the idea may have a chance, Mr. Erlenborn said.