Congress, stunned and frightened by the $3.3 trillion debt of federal pension systems, is considering major changes in the way it runs those retirement plans. Idea is to give more unified direction over the way the 69 different retirement programs are structured and financed.
At a White House meeting Last week, President Carter told Rep. Gladys N. Spellman (D-Md.) that he would give any support necessary to the plan to consolidate congressional control over government retirement programs. The money they have promised to pay out in future benefits dwarfs the size of the nation's annual operating budget, and inflation is driving the debt up each year.
At the moment, control over those programs -- ranging from the giant social security system to plans covering a few thousand ex-foreign service staffers -- is split among 11 different committee of the House and 10 in the Senate.
Congress this year will be asked to consider substantial "deliberalizations" of the financially hard-pressed social security system. Many of the changes proposed by the president and individual members of Congress would have a major dollar impact on future retirees from the federal government, postal service and the military.
Carter told Spellman he was "enthusiastic" about her retirement committee consolidation plan. He said he would give it whatever support is needed, but wants to avoid stepping on the toes of powerful committee chairmen (and women) and not give the appearance of interfering in the internal business of the Senate or House.
The $3.3 trillion unfunded liability of pension systems the government controls, or helps fund, represents monetary benefits that are already pledged which the government has not financed.
Spellman reports that she is encouraged by talks with Chairman Al Ullman (D-Ore.) who heads the powerful Ways and Means Committee. It handles the biggest of the pension plans, the social security system.
Ullman has endorsed many of the cost-cutting proposals the White House has made, but says it will take time and much study before any of them become law.
Spellman, who heads the Employe Compensation and Benefits Subcommittee of the Post Office-Civil Service Committee, has also won tentative support from Chairman Richard Bolling (D-Mo.) of the Rules Committee. Bolling can push or block action on most legislation. Chairman Melvin Price (D-Ill.) also has agreed to discuss the committee consolidation idea.
Price chairs the Armed Services Committee that has charge of the giant military pension program.
Spellman plans to introduce a resolution next week that could lead to creation of one, two or even three committees to take over the work now handled by 11 in the House.
Not all the committee leaders agree on what to do about financing retirement systems. Ullman, for example, favors integration of the civil service retirement system with social security. Price wants to preserve the benefits of military retirees. Spellman is anxious that federal workers (she represents more of them than anyone in Congress) not lose pension benefits they have earned and paid for.
But the fact that these congressional powerhouses -- each jealous of turf and jurisdiction -- are seriously talking to each other is new, and news.Under their split personalities, federal pensions systems offer a wide difference of benefits, service requirements and retirement ages. It is possible to retire as early as age 38 under some plans, while others require individuals to wait until their 60s.
Consolidation, if it comes, could mean dollar savings to taxpayer-members -- in and out of government -- who themselves will be retiring some day. And it could make real dollars and sense out of the hodge-podge of retirement programs and eliminate some of the political hue and cry to dismantle the federal employes system, which is not the boondoggle some politicians and editorial writers make it out to be.