The House Education and the Workforce Committee yesterday approved a wide-ranging bill that would toughen funding requirements for traditional pensions and also bar future age-discrimination complaints against "cash-balance" plans if those plans meet certain requirements.
The measure now goes to the Ways and Means Committee, which will review its tax provisions. Backers said the bill is meant to protect both workers with pensions and the government's pension insurance agency by ensuring that employers that operate these plans set aside sufficient funds to pay for the promises they make.
At the same time, backers said, the measure would not impose rules so tough that they discourage employers from offering traditional pensions at all.
The bill would require employers to put enough money into their pension plans to cover the benefits that participants have earned. If a pension plan falls short, the employer would have five years to bring it up to full funding. Plans whose assets fall below 60 percent of liabilities would be designated "at risk," and face stricter funding rules, and participants in such plans would earn no new benefits.
The at-risk designation would be based solely on the plan's funding level. It would not take into account the employer's credit rating, something proposed by the administration based on the idea that plans operated by shaky companies pose a greater risk to the government's Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.
The measure would allow some "smoothing" of funding calculations over time, giving employers some leeway to ride out short-term market fluctuations. It also would allow employers with relatively well-funded plans to take credits for past pension contributions, but they would have to adjust for investment gains and losses since the date of the contributions for which they claim credit.
The bill would increase insurance premiums paid to the PBGC, a move that many employers, especially those with well-funded plans, oppose. It would also establish new funding rules for multi-employer plans, which are common in industries such as trucking and construction, requiring weak plans to come up with programs to improve funding.
The provision on cash-balance plans would deem these "hybrid" plans, which have characteristics of both traditional pensions and 401(k) plans, non-discriminatory if benefits are equal for all workers who are "similarly situated" except for age.
The provision is effective only prospectively, however, leaving International Business Machines Corp., which lost a big age-discrimination suit, and some other large employers now being sued, to fight it out in the courts.