With the 116th Congress recently underway, some lawmakers on Capitol Hill are making it clear that retirement security is one of their top priorities. On Wednesday, February 6, 2019, the House Ways & Means Committee will hold one of its first hearings in the new Congress, which will examine an array of retirement security issues facing American works—including the growing solvency concerns facing certain multiemployer pension plans and their members.
In March 2018, the bipartisan Joint Select Committee on Solvency of Multiemployer Pension Plans convened to devise recommendations and legislative language designed to “significantly improve the solvency of multiemployer pension plans and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.” But after holding a series of hearings throughout the Summer, the Joint Select Committee failed to reach an agreement by its November 30th statutory deadline. As a result, the issues facing the multiemployer pension system—and the search for solutions—now return to the committees of jurisdiction in the U.S. House and Senate.
With Democrats in control of the House after the 2018 midterm elections, proponents of a federal loan program may find greater support in the lower chamber than in recent years. Notably, Rep. Richard Neal (D-MA), an active member of the Joint Select Committee and a strong advocate of a loan program for certain distressed plans, is now Chair of the powerful House Ways & Means Committee. In the first week of the 116th Congress, Rep. Neal introduced the Rehabilitation for Multiemployer Pensions Act (H.R. 397), a bipartisan bill that would establish a new agency within the Treasury Department authorized to issue bonds in order to finance loans to troubled multiemployer pension plans. One of the co-sponsors of H.R. 397 is Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), another member of the Joint Select Committee and the new Chairman of the House Education & Labor Committee, which also exercises jurisdiction over pension issues. Under Chairman Scott, the Education & Labor Committee is expected to make the multiemployer pension solvency crisis one of its top legislative priorities.
In the upper chamber, Senate Democrats are taking steps to address the impending insolvency facing the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). On January 3, 2019, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), along with five other Senate Democrats, introduced the American Miners Act of 2019 (S. 27), which would amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act of 1977 to transfer excess funds to the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan to fend off its insolvency. The bill also would amend the Coal Act to include 2018 bankruptcies in the miners’ healthcare fix that passed in 2017, and would extend the tax that funds the Black Lung Disability Trust Fund at 2018 levels for ten years. Absent congressional action, the UMWA 1974 Pension Plan is projected to become insolvent in 2022.
In light of the Joint Select Committee’s inability to reach consensus last year, it remains to be seen whether lawmakers can craft any multiemployer pension bill that can pass both chambers. But as certain large multiemployer pension plans continue to advance closer to insolvency, the pressure on Congress to act will only increase.