How would you like to work for an outfit that has 50 different pension plans? And suppose each plan had a difference cost? And different benefits? And different eligibility requirements? And suppose the apparent cost of those plans is doubling every 10 years but nobody in charge (and some of the people in charge don't kown they are in charge) has any idea what future costs will be or who will pay them?
Well, if you are old enough to read this without too much help, the odds are you already work for that outfit, one way or another, or soon will. And for the rest of your life. We are, of course, talking about the U.S. government.
Congress will get a devastating report today from the General Acounting Office - which doesn't miss much - on the status of the federal retirement system. In a nutshell, GAO says the pension program is a patchwork well, in a sea of red ink. GAO's auditors didn't get that emotional in their report, but that is about what they meant.
GAO went into seven of the government's pension plans ranging from the one used to finance present and future benefits for 8.1 million federal civil servants and military personnel to the system used to take care of the golden years of 13 retired U.S. Tax Court Judges.
Congress, at different times and from different committees, created the hodge-podge of retirement systems that paid out $15.6 billion last year, and have future obligations of $320 billion with only $44 billion in the bank to cover them.
The GAO says the systems are so different and so complicated that nobody in government, or Congress, knows what is happening to them or is doing anything to find out what is happening.
Each of the system GAO looked at has its own financing program, different age and service requirements and different benefits.
Some federal workers pay more, work longer and get less from their pension fund than others. Some get the benefits of Social Security while others are specifically barred from it.
Judges and military personnel pay nothing toward pensions, the GAO said, while federal and postal workers contribute 7 per cent and the taxpayers match it with another 7 per cnet. Tennessee Valley Authority employees, who get checks from Uncle Sam, have the same pension benefits as other government workers but pay 1 per cent less.
Widows under some federal pension systems do rather well financially, while other systems make little provision for survivor annuiti+es or for minor children.
Both Congress and the American public have been misled, GAO says, by unrealistically low cost estimates of federal pension programs. Most agencies themselves do not know what their status is, since pensions are the sort of thing put into the "future" file, for somebody else to worry about, later on.
Because COngress has little or no idea of present federal retirement costs, GAO warned, it has liberalized benefits in the past without any thought of what they will cost, or how they will be paid for. GAO said that in the civil service system (second only to the military in number of persons covered) the true cost of pensions being earned by present workers is $7 billion more than Congress or the White House has budgeted for.
GAO believes that somebody in Congress ought to centralize jurisdiction over the various pension systems, and that Congress and federal agencies should begin figuring the impact of inflation and pay raises, as well as liberalized benefits including early retirement, and do it soon.
Although civil service pensions are considered among the best in the country - for any group of works - some employees get a better deal than others.
After 30 years of service, for example, a government executive or postal clerk can get a pension equal to about 56 per cent of salary, with regular (twice yearly) cost of living adjustments. A military retiree after 30 years of service would get 75 per cent of pay and a federal judge could get 100 per cent of pay with only half that amount of service time.
GAO doesn't recommend that everybody in government be under the same system. But it does think Congress ought to be aware of the differences, and the costs, while there is still time to get a handle on future costs.
Allie B. Latimer is in line to be the new general counsel at General Services Administration. She had been deputy at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and before that had spent 20 years with GSA. The job is a Grade 18 ($47,500), and she would be the highest ranking woman at GSA, and one of the top-ranking black women in government.