Representative. John Boehner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, predicted that the House would probably act before the end of October on pension legislation, according to an Associated Press news report (See Boehner Pension Reform Bill Passes Committee on Party Line Vote ).
US Senate negotiators, meanwhile, reached an agreement to combine two competing bills, and pensions reform could be one of the first issues on the floor after the Senate vote on Supreme Court chief justice nominee John Roberts, said Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, (R-Iowa) (See Pension Bill Gets by US Senate Finance Panel ).
“Now more than ever, workers deserve the support of Congress to preserve their hard-earned pensions. This bipartisan legislation will do just that,” said Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) who negotiated the deal with Grassley, Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Senator Michael Enzi, (R-Wyoming), and Senator Max Baucus (D-Montana).
Boehner said he fully supports efforts to make the Social Security system solvent in the future, and deferred to Ways and Means Committee Chairman Representative Bill Thomas, (R-California) on how that will happen. Thomas has advocated a retirement package combining pensions, Social Security and incentives for personal savings.
But he said there was little political appetite now for changing Social Security, a top priority of the Bush administration. “It’s like asking Congress to eat a bowl of cold green peas,” Boehner said in an address to a pensions forum sponsored by the National Journal. “They don’t want to do it.”
House and Senate pension bills, while differing in the details, seek to ensure the financial viability of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC), the nation’s private-sector pension insurer.
The Senate bill, unlike the House version, also provides relief for the airlines industry. Bankruptcies and financial troubles in the industry have been a major source of problems for the PBGC, which went from a $7.8 billion surplus in 2001 to a $23.3 billion deficit last year (See PBGC: Underfunding Totals Skyrocket 27% in 2004 ).
The Boehner plan in the House, like the Senate bill, raises the premium from the current $19 to $30 a year per participant. It requires employers to make additional contributions to erase funding shortfalls, changes the interest rate by which employers determine their pension liabilities and requires greater transparency so employees can better understand the status of their plans.
Boehner acknowledged that “we’re walking down a very fine line” in trying to make the PBGC financially stronger without adding a burden to companies that might force them to terminate their pension plans, according to the news report.