Government retirees would get only one cost of living raise (COL) every 12 months, and lose minimum Social Security benefits under tough proposals cleared by the Senate Budget Committee. Both items are favored by the Reagan Administration.
Federal, postal and military retirees now get COL catchups every March and September. That includes more than 100,000 people here. Under the minimum benefit plan everyone entitled to a Social Security payment gets at least $122 per month. The Senate plan would drop one of the two COL adjustments and eliminate the minimum benefit -- but not all benefits -- for three million Americans who now get them. About 15 percent of the persons now drawing the minimum monthly Social Security benefit are retired federal or postal workers.
Once the Senate approves its Budget Committee's resolutions (and the House does the same for its committee) the two bodies get together and agree on spending-cut targets, including those for Social Security and federal retirement.
Item one, the proposal for a single annual COL adjustment for U.S. retirees, is a rerun of the 1980 attempt by the Democratic-controlled Senate and President Carter to save $500 million a year by limiting U.S. retirees to a COL raise every 12 months. Then the COL cutback was tentatively approved by Congress. But the March and September adjustments were saved through a combination of hard lobbying by federal and postal unions (especially the National Association of Retired Federal Employees), the upcoming election and the parliamentrary skill of then congressman Robert Bauman (R-Md.).
Unions representing millions of federal workers, retirees and the military worked the Congress effectively. Candidate Ronald Reagan made saving the COL raises an issue. He promised NARFE, in writing yet, he would do nothing as president to tamper with the COL raises. On that basis, NARFE says 85 percent of its members voted for Reagan. Campaigners, as we know, have short memories!
Now, Republicans control the Senate. Reagan is president, not a candidate, and Bauman, who got House Republicans to block the COL cutback, is no longer in Congress.
Item two concerns proposals to eliminate the minimum Social Security benefit. Many retirees, based on their wage history, actually are due benefits of less than $122 per month. But all get the minimum. And many are ex-feds who qualify for Social Security based on non-federal jobs they held.
The Senate proposal would limit Social Security payouts to the amount justified by the wage history. It would affect everybody now getting the minimum Social Security benefit, as well as person retiring in future. The House is considering a similar plan to cut out the minimum benefit. But its version would let people already getting the minimum benefit keep it, eliminating the $122 per month minimum only for new retirees.
Both the Senate and House Budget committees hope to complete their resolutions before the Easter recess. The Senate and House are scheduled to reach joint agreement on spending limits by mid-May. After that, committees of jurisdiction will be bound to come up with spending cuts mandated by Congress although they can achieve them in different ways. That means the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee and the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee could come up with plans that would save the twice-yearly COL raises, so long as the savings are the same. The Social Security issue will be handled by the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee.
There is a good chance that Congress will compromise on the minimum Social Security benefit, and agree to protect people already getting it. But the man in the street, and your typical member of Congress, has little sympathy for the federal retirement program and its twice-yearly COL adjustments.