WASHINGTON – Roger Spencer uses part of his pension check from the failing Central States Pension Fund to buy a lifesaving cancer drug that costs $500 a month.
So when the Democratic majority in the House recently teamed with 29 Republicans, including Minnesota Rep. Pete Stauber, to pass a bill to rescue underfunded multiemployer pension plans, Spencer celebrated briefly. Then he started to worry about what the Senate would do with a similar bill.
If Central States goes under or cuts benefits in half as the plan has proposed, said the retired Center City, Minn., truck driver, “it sinks me.”
His two brothers and 22,000 other retired Teamsters union members in Minnesota relying on Central States share his concern. All of them contributed to Central States for years with the understanding that the pension fund would see them through retirement.
Politicians, economists and actuaries agree that without a bailout, dozens of underfunded pension plans could ruin millions of Americans’ retirement.
“This is about working-class families,” said Stauber, who broke ranks with most of his Republican colleagues to vote for the House bill. “When I look into the eyes of people who could have their pensions reduced 50, 60 or 70 percent, it is unconscionable.”
Stauber said he believes the Republican-led Senate should deal with the pension bill “immediately” and in an “extremely urgent fashion.”
Yet no one seems sure if the Senate will take up the issue anytime soon, much less vote on it. A multiemployer pension reform bill nearly identical to the House bill has been introduced in the Senate and referred to the Finance Committee. It will not receive a hearing until at least September because of Congress’ traditional August recess.
A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell did not respond to a request for comment on the Senate legislation.
Democratic Sen. Tina Smith of Minnesota warned that a solution gets only more expensive with procrastination.
“These pensions are not in trouble because of mismanagement or because somebody stole something,” said Smith, who served on a bipartisan select committee of the Senate and House that tried but failed to hammer out a multiemployer pension fix.
Smith says problems for multiemployer pensions — which are single pension plans for workers employed by different companies — were made worse by deregulation in the trucking industry and the Great Recession. There is also a structural problem because union membership has plummeted. The upshot is that the number of retirees drawing benefits vastly outnumbers current employees paying into pension funds. Central States, the biggest failing fund with 400,000 participants, says it now pays out $3.49 in benefits for every $1 it takes in. Without changes, it will be bankrupt in 2025. Currently, 201 of the nation’s roughly 1,400 multiemployer pensions are either out of money or considered critically underfunded. Among those is the United Mine Workers, projected for insolvency in 2022.
“This is a ‘pay me now or pay me later’ kind of problem,” Smith explained. “It doesn’t go away if you ignore it.”
In a statement, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said, “The promise made to workers in multiemployer pension plans is simple — that their pensions, which were earned through decades of hard work, will be there when they retire.”
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated that the House legislation would cost $48 billion over the next decade. Some of those dollars guarantee low-interest loans to struggling pension plans provided by a trust fund filled with U.S. Treasury bonds. The rest are supplemental grants made by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. to the most underfunded pension plans, such as Central States. These grants will not have to be repaid.
In the House-passed bill, pension plans pay only interest on their loans for 29 years and use the principal to buy annuities that lock in current retirees’ benefits. Meanwhile, employer contributions and investments they manage provide benefits for future retirees and build a financial base over 30 years to pay back the principal.
Republican Rep. Jim Hagedorn of Minnesota, who voted against the bailout in the lower chamber, summed up GOP concerns.
“I have met many times with retired workers whose pensions were mismanaged, and I have concern for their plight,” Hagedorn said in a statement to the Star Tribune. “While I am supportive of a solution to address this issue in a fair manner, the bill offered for a vote on the House floor by liberal Democrats was fiscally irresponsible to taxpayers. It is my hope that the House and Senate will work to craft compromise legislation that I can vote for and President Donald Trump will sign into law.”
In 2014, then-GOP Rep. John Kline of Minnesota co-authored a multiemployer pension bailout with Democratic Rep. George Miller of California. It allowed failing plans to cut payments to many current retirees by half or more.
Minnesotans head to D.C.
The legislation, tucked into a must-pass budget bill, never received a stand-alone vote. It enraged seniors who had contributed to pension plans and forgone raises for decades based on the promise of fixed payments. They organized, staged protests and gathered impact statements to remind members of Congress of the hardships they face by having retirement plans blown up through no fault of their own.
“My husband and I went to D.C. three times,” said Marcia Petersen of South St. Paul, whose 69-year-old husband, Ken, is a Central States pensioner. “We lobbied like crazy.”
Now that pensioners have finally gotten a relief bill through the House, Petersen said, they fear the Senate will sit on it.
“If [senators] oppose it,” she said, “show us something that can work. They have to fix this. It has been six years.”
Karen Friedman is policy director of the Washington-based Pension Rights Center, which pushed the House bill. Friedman said her side is willing to talk.
Her group is advocating for the Senate version of the House bill, “but we’re open to other approaches that shore up funding for multiemployer plans and protect workers’ retirement benefits and ensure the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation is on solid ground for the future,” Friedman said. “We want the Senate to negotiate.”
Gene Kalwarski, CEO of the actuarial consultancy Cheiron, analyzed the House bill and said it can save more than its current $48 billion cost. Kalwarski’s analysis found the House-passed bill could protect 1.3 million multiemployer pensioners from insolvency for at least 30 years and eliminate at least $65 billion in payments from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.
But those savings figures depend on fast action by a body often mired in gridlock and entering an election year, which can slow things even more. According to Kalwarski’s calculations, the public bill for the pension fix rises roughly $750 million each month that Congress and the president fail to act.
“My biggest concern is a delay in implementation,” Kalwarski said. “The longer you wait, the more it costs.”