Rep. Patricia Schroeder's bill struck me as simple fairness: it would allow ex-spouses of federal retirees to share, on a pro rata basis, the pension benefits of their former mates.
When I wrote recently in support of her proposal, I had in mind a woman who has played hostess, homemaker, child-rearer and career-enhancer for her civil servant husband for a decade or more during which, by their mutual agreement, she had no career of her own. If the marriage fell apart and he married someone else, how could it be fair that his second wife should reap all his pension benefits?
A lot of readers shared that view, and several thought it should be made even stronger--for instance, by extending its coverage to couples already divorced. "A lot of us are hoping that somehow Schroeder can go back and ask for retroactivity," one divorcee wrote. "We not only need a portion of the federal pension, but it should be put into the law just for the sake of fairness and to keep us from starving."
Others pointed out that the problem addressed by Schroeder's bill is not limited to government workers. A minister's wife, said one, often is expected to be an unpaid adjunct of her husband (both for his benefit and for the good of the congregation) and to forgo a career of her own. If their marriage should break up, why should his church-paid pension be considered his alone?
But there were other points of view -- most of them from men. One said the Schroeder legislation, designed to produce fairness, would do just the opposite in the case of men (like himself) who had agreed to generous divorce settlements because they knew their ex-spouses couldn't collect on their pensions.
Another--a retired Navy man--got to the heart of what bothers a lot of men about the Civil Service Spouse Retirement Equity Act.
"I have no personal ax to grind," he said. "I retired after some 30 years' service, and have been happily married all those years to a remarkable woman to whom I would gladly award everything I have. I can't begin to describe how much she contributed to my career.
"She managed (much of the time alone) to raise four healthy, well-adjusted children. We have known hundreds of service wives every bit as admirable, and some who were crassly discarded by their husbands in later years, just as Rep. Schroeder laments.
"But little is said about the other side of the ledger. How about the bimboes, sleep-arounds and leeches-- without children or careless of the ones they have--who make life miserable for faithful and self-sacrificing husbands sent halfway around the world to do their best at lonely, difficult, and often dangerous commitments?
"How about the arrogant legion who take everything they can get and then abandon husband and children after years of marriage to 'find themselves' or another man? How about the hoydens on a free ride who demand 20 years of the best--food, clothing and shelter for starters--and then go about driving their husbands so deeply in debt it's amazing some of them ever get out? We've known more than a few of those, too.
"I have no idea how the numbers work out, and I doubt that anyone does. The point, of course, is that any law which starts with the assumption that all husbands are remiss and all wives put-upon is bound to create as many injustices as it resolves.
"Bear in mind--at least in the case of military personnel--regardless of the demands, unless service is continuous and honorable for at least 20 years, he does not get a pension.
"Obviously, neither should she."