THERE ARE public policy problems from hell — and then there’s the public policy problem known as multiemployer pension plans.
In a nutshell, these are defined-benefit pensions covering unionized workers of an entire industry as opposed to a single company. Multiemployer plans seemed like a great idea at the time, decades ago, when they were formed, and when the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. (PBGC) undertook to insure them against insolvency. It turned out, however, that many plans could not withstand the serial shake-outs that battered trucking, coal, commercial baking and other industries.
Today, the government considers about a 10th of the 1,400 plans “at risk.” The projected unfunded liabilities, in turn, could swamp the PBGC, whose multiemployer insurance fund had $2.3 billion in cash to cover insured liabilities of $56.2 billion as of Sept. 30, 2018. (PBGC’s separate fund for single-employer pensions faces no such problem.) At the heart of the issue: the mammoth Teamsters’ Central States Pension Fund. With an unfunded liability exceeding $20 billion, it is on course for collapse by 2025, which could bring down the PBGC’s multiemployer pension insurance fund with it.
Basically, the retirement livelihood of hundreds of thousands of working-class Americans is in jeopardy. So, too, are many businesses for which pension obligations have become a growth-stifling burden. A meltdown must be avoided, but so, too, must a massive federal bailout that would soak the rest of society, including many taxpayers who do not even have pensions. Between those poles lie inevitable shared sacrifices: a significant but finite injection of public funds, offset by limited benefit reductions, conditioned on long-term reforms to stabilize the system.
Congress actually adopted such a proposal on a bipartisan basis in 2014, but the Obama administration balked at implementing the required benefit haircut for Central States retirees on the eve of the 2016 election — which sent Congress back to the drawing board. Lawmakers from both parties and both chambers formed a committee to write a new bill, which would have gotten expedited consideration on the floors of both chambers. Unfortunately, the committee missed a self-imposed Nov. 30, 2018, deadline.
It did develop a draft that would have provided $3 billion per year in taxpayer funds to cover benefits for a certain category of retirees whose former employers had gone out of business, while requiring remaining pensions to make selective benefit cuts, pay higher PBGC insurance premiums and adopt more realistic economic assumptions. Hardly pain-free or perfect, the proposal had the virtue of realism and, in rough terms, fairness.
The 116th Congress must now try its hand. Any proposal must be bipartisan to pass the Democratic House and Republican Senate. The costs of failure would be borne mainly by retirees and businesses directly affected — but the indirect impact on the broader economy could be substantial. Meanwhile, any solution would require business, labor and taxpayers to shoulder costs they would rather not pay. We hope lawmakers don’t waste much time pretending otherwise.