THE BITTER FIGHT to cover new federal workers under Social Security has left these workers in a precarious position. Congress needs to construct a new retirement system to supplement the Social Security benefits that future federal workers will receive, but it is reluctant to address the issue for fear that it will arouse new animosity from federal employees' unions before the 1984 elections.
As things now stand, new federal workers will be making very stiff payroll contributions in return for uncertain benefits. They will still be contributing 7 percent of their salaries to the federal retirement trust funds, but they will also have to start paying Social Security taxes. Most private-sector workers make no contributions to their company pension plans, and those who do typically receive a tax deduction for their contributions--which federal workers do not.
Before the Social Security reform bill passed Congress, Sen. Ted Stevens, chairman of the subcommittee on civil service, offered a compromise amendment that would have exempted new workers from the 7 percent contribution requirement until a new supplemental pension system was established. Federal workers' groups, however, refused to support the amendment, preferring to continue working to kill the Social Security coverage measure entirely.
That refusal to compromise turned out to be a bad deal for new federal workers. It also made some senators and congressmen reluctant to address the issue at all as long as it could be avoided. Interested members in both houses of Congress realize that substantial study is needed before an acceptable plan can be drafted, but they have not yet been able to agree how to organize themselves to get the work done.
It's easy to understand congressional reluctance to deal with this inflammatory issue. But even if action on a measure is delayed until after the 1984 elections, there is a sufficient number of issues to keep a study group busy between now and then. Much useful spadework has been done by the Congressional Research Service and others, but deciding on the general structure of alternative plans to be considered requires high-level attention by policy-makers. The country needs an effective civil service, and a decent pension plan is essential for attracting qualified workers. Starting work on such a plan should be a high priority for both Congress and the administration.