Persistent (and expensive) lobbying, and a Capitol Hill battle between committees over legislative turf may save those cost-of-living (COL) raises federal and military retirees get every six months.
Locally more than 100,000 former federal workers, military personnel or their survivors benefit from the March and September raises designed to keep them reasonable current with inflation.
Both the Senate and House have approved budgets that would eliminate one of the two COL raises. Instead they would authorize a one-shot inflation adjustment each July, beginning next year. Under the present catchup-with-inflation system, retirees got a 3.9 percent annuity adjustment in March and are due another 6.9 percent raise effective Sept. 1.
Although Congress is on record as favoring a single July 1 raise for retirees, the action of its budget committees must be translated into specific legislation that must be passed, and signed by the president, before the change could be made.
Ever since the one-raise-per-year plan surfaced, retiree groups, federal and postal unions have devoted many hours (and lots of dollars) to fighting the plan on Capitol Hill. One group, the National Association of Retired Federal Employes, raised nearly a million dollars in one month, despite the rather modest circumstances of its members who pay only $6 per year in national dues. Unions representing active-duty federal and postal employes have also bombarded Capitol Hill with mail, pleas and called in some IOUs to kill the proposed change.
The normal channel for any such pension change would be through the Post Office-Civil Service Committee in the House, and the Governmental Affairs Committee of the Senate. Both committees are ticked off at the Budget Committee action which they see as a political end-run to cut back their oversight powers over the federal bureaucracy.
House committee members have indicated they will be very careful (for "careful" read "slow") in considering any change in the cost-of-living formula. The Senate committee has also made it clear this major change needs lots of work and study - and it is the group that should work on and study it.
On July 27, Chairman Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.) and ranking members (majority and minority) wrote to the Budget Committee saying they would not take action now on the plan for a single July raise for retirees in place of the March and September Adjustments.
"In the absence of complete information on alternatives," Ribicoff and colleagues said, "the committee is not prepared to report legislation adversely affecting the financial security of thousands of Americans, many of whom are on lower fixed incomes." The letter said the committee would seek other ways to save money in the retirement program, perhaps by making changes in disability retirements.
All of the above means, in polite terms, that the pension cutback isn't going anywhere anytime soon through normal channels. The Senate could, however, set a single yearly adjustment by attaching the July 1 date as an amendment to another bill. The House committee will probably throw up similar roadblocks to the plan. This doesn't mean the cutback proposal is dead, but it does mean backers of the change will have to work much harder if they want to eliminate the March and September raises.