Absent any congressional action, between 1 million and 10 million workers and retirees will lose most of their promised pension benefits over the coming decades.
It would be unfair to stave off those losses with taxpayer bailouts, and doing so would establish the precedent that the federal government will stand behind pension promises that it didn’t even make. But it would also be irresponsible and destructive to do nothing.
Congress’ Joint Select Committee on Solvency of Multiemployer Pensions faces a Nov. 30 deadline to issue a report, including legislative recommendations that address both the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.’s $54 billion multiemployer program deficit and multiemployer pension plans’ $638 billion in unfunded pension promises.
While failure to reach a consensus and issue a report would avoid a taxpayer bailout, at least for the near term, no action would be decidedly worse than recommending and enacting fair, commonsense reforms.
The longer Congress waits to correct fundamental deficiencies in multiemployer pension plans’ governance and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.’s multiemployer program, the larger the problem will become.
In 2016 alone, multiemployer pension plans promised their workers an additional $42 billion more than they set aside to pay them. Failure to rein in new unfunded pension promises could grow plan deficits by hundreds of billions of dollars before the first big wave of multiemployer pension failures hits between 2023 and 2025.
If policymakers wait until hundreds of thousands of workers lose most of their pension benefits, they will be more likely to pass haphazard, costly measures that would unfairly burden taxpayers and condone reckless pension plan management.
To avoid both massive pension losses and a taxpayer bailout, policymakers should first and foremost ensure that the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. can provide the insurance it requires multiemployer pension plans to purchase.
Then, Congress should change the rules governing multiemployer pensions so that they cannot make promises they can’t keep.
These 12 reforms would accomplish those goals:
- Increase the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.’s multiemployer premium to at least $90 per participant per year (from $29).
- Add a variable rate premium (similar to what nonunion pension plans pay).
- Enact a standard PBGC eligibility age (tied to Social Security).
- Have the PBGC take over multiemployer plans when they fail (as it does for nonunion plans).
- Enact a stakeholder fee of $8 per month on employers, unions, and pension plan participants.
- Require multiemployer plans to use reasonable discount rate assumptions to strengthen plan solvency.
- Prohibit plans from shortchanging workers by re-enacting an excise tax on multiemployer plans’ shortfalls in annual required contributions (as exists for single-employer plans).
- Freeze new benefit promises for dangerously underfunded plans.
- Prohibit collective bargaining from setting contribution rates.
- Require employers to recognize unfunded liabilities on their balance sheets (just as single-employer plans must do).
- Enhance Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014 provisions to minimize benefit cuts across workers.
- Allow workers a buy-out option.
Altogether, these 12 provisions would vastly improve multiemployer pension plan funding, reduce pension cuts, secure the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.’s solvency, and protect taxpayers from massive bailout costs.
While this combination of changes would transform multiemployer pensions into a decidedly more safe and secure retirement system, any one of these reforms would improve the status quo.
The Joint Select Committee on Solvency of Multiemployer Pensions and other policymakers should not let this opportunity go to waste.