Over $1 billion in pension liabilities could be unloaded on the U.S. government by failing private pensions plans over the next three weeks, because Congress deadlocked on a pension bill before it rushed home Aug. 1.

The impasse over the bill allowed to go into effect on Aug. 1 a long-postponed trigger date, after which the U.S. government is required to take over pension payments for any multi-employer pension program that goes bust.

It must pay 100 percent of the worker's pension or $1,159 a month, whichever is lower. A multi-employer pension plan is one in which a number of employers and a single big union set up a single pension fund covering the whole industry, like the bituminous coal fund.

Experts say there at least five or six multi-employer funds, such as the anthracite coal fund in Pennsylvania, which are in serious financial straits and may now decide to declare insolvency and unload on the government their liabilities, which are estimated at over $1 billion. These funds have struggled along until now because they didn't want to go bust and throw their pensioners out on the street with nothing.

The trouble is, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. -- the tiny federal agency that would have to take over the monthly pension payments -- has an income of only $4 million a year.

It comes from insurance premiums charged multi-employer funds by the government. It would be pitifully inadequate to cover the tens of millions of dollars in annual obligations that would result if only one or two of the failing multi-employer funds declare insolvency.

Nevertheless, the law would require it to take over these payments. Nobody knows how they could be met.

The anthracite fund, which pays out about $4.2 million a year in pensions to 11,000 workers (at $30 a month) is usually cited as a prime candidate for insolvency.

For a while, according to Bill Savitsky of Hazelton, Pa., the $1.50 a ton paid to the pension fund by coal operators couldn't meet the annual bill, and benefits were lowered to $20 a month, shored up by handouts from the United Mine Workers.

Savitsky said in an interview yesterday that, for now at least, anthracite production has picked up a bit (for heating purposes), and the fund is meeting its bills and doesn't plan to declare insolvency "at the present time." m

But pension experts fear that it or other funds barely staggering along might go under nevertheless.

The bill that failed to pass last week would have restructured the whole insurance system for multi-employer funds.

It also would have lowered the federal insurance guarantee and, in effect, made it much harder for a pension fund to declare insolvency and throw its workers onto the federal guarantee.

However, the Senate on July 29 tacked on several nongermane amendments opposed by labor unions: one exempted stone, sand and gravel mining from the Federal Mine Safety Act; another exempted government contractors with less than five employes from equal employment opportunity rules; another exempted small businesses under certain condition from routine Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspections.

House conservatives blocked a vote to strip these off, and Congress went home of three weeks.

Sources say bill sponsors will try to make the measure retroactive to before Aug. 1 when they get back and thereby wipe out the open season on insolvency.

But any fund that does go insolvent during that period is sure to challenge such a retroactive provision in court. "Whatever happens, we can look forward to a pension lawyer's paradise," said one Hill pension lawyer.