Yet the bill now moving through the House shows signs of losing focus in just that way. Specifically, the House Ways and Means Committee has attached a plan to rescue financially troubled retirement systems known as multiemployer pensions affecting some 10 million people, of whom about a tenth are in the most distressed plans. Though the predicament might have worsened during the pandemic, the pension problem is a perennial with which committee chairman Richard E. Neal (D-Mass.) has long been concerned. And it is a real one: Many of these defined-benefit plans, which cover workers of an entire industry, as opposed to a single company, face insolvency because of the failure of many companies that formerly contributed to them. Meanwhile, the portion of the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. that protects multiemployer plans has only $3 billion on hand and is projected to run out of cash as early as 2025.
For years, Republicans and Democrats have tried to negotiate a package to protect workers without soaking taxpayers — most of whom do not even have defined-benefit pensions. Proposals have generally involved some combination of benefit trims, greater employer insurance premiums and federal support. Yet the bill just approved by Ways and Means one-sidedly provides the funds a slug of federal cash, with little structural reform required beyond a somewhat increased employer premium. Its likely net cost: $56 billion.
To make this pension bailout fit within the $1.9 trillion budget ceiling suggested by Mr. Biden and enshrined in a budget reconciliation resolution, along with $1,400 stimulus “checks” and other spending items, the committee had to offset the cost by ending a much more vital program — extended unemployment benefits — at the end of August rather than September, as Mr. Biden originally advocated. To be sure, this might be intended as a temporary accounting move, which (for arcane procedural reasons) the Senate can still adjust, as a Democratic House aide familiar with the legislation explained to us.
Nevertheless, this particular bit of sausage-making illustrates the complications that develop when lawmakers start to stray from straightforward attention to the most urgent covid-related needs. It’s bad enough that Mr. Biden and Congress seem bent on distributing the $1,400 checks to a far wider segment of the population than really needs them.
Difficult as the multiemployer plans’ difficulties are, they have a few years of solvency left, time enough to craft a more financially balanced fix through regular order rather than the party-line method of reconciliation. That is the approach that we, along with thoughtful legislators of both parties, have long advocated, and to which Congress should return once it has passed a credible, focused covid relief bill.