Miller Takes Pension Hearings to the Web

May 25, 2005 ( - A prominent US House Democrat is sponsoring what is believed to be the first online hearing ever conducted by a House member - in this case regarding problems with the US private pension system.

>In the wake of the United Airlines pension struggle, US Representative George Miller (D-California) kicked off a weeklong e-hearing in which interested parties can submit testimony via e-mail. The forum, which lacks the official blessing of a House committee, was initiated after a bankruptcy court decision earlier this month that allowed the parent company of United Airlines to transfer $6.6 billion in pension liabilities to the nation’s private  pe nsion insurer (See  United Pension Hearing Delayed, But Okayed By Court ).

“By employing e-mail and the Internet, we can hold a hearing at any time, on any subject; we can invite the most well-informed participants, regardless of their ability to travel or the congressional schedule,” wrote US Representative George Miller, (D-California), on the  e-hearing home page .

>Miller, the senior Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, sponsored the e-hearing with Representative Jan Schakowsky, (D-Illinois). “This Congress is consistently ignoring economic issues of great importance to American workers and their families, from health insurance, to wages, to the trouble with United and other companies’ pension plans,” Miller said in a statement. “Because the Republican majority will not hold hearings into these crucial matters, Democrats will use technology to give Americans a forum for better informing their Congress.

>Miller and Schakowsky are inviting online statements through Friday from United employees and retirees, United management, pension experts, and executives from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp (PBGC). The testimony will eventually be entered into the Congressional Record.

>So far, statements from 42 United employees and retirees have been posted online, as well as comments from Teresa Ghilarducci, an economics professor at the University of Notre Dame who has testified on pension issues before.

“It’s so cool. I’m so glad I don’t have to get on an airplane,” said Ghilarducci, whose teaching schedule would have made it impossible to travel to the Capitol, in an interview with the Hartford Courant. “This was terrific for me, who had something to say but just could not get there to testify,” she said.

“I think it’s appropriate for the first e-hearing to be on this issue,” she continued. “This is an issue that concerns people who aren’t normally heard from. It touches every single worker who’s concerned about their retirement security. The only way their voices can be heard is through the Internet.”

>But the electronic forum does have drawbacks, according to a Courant news report. To begin with, House rules require all formal hearings to be conducted in person, with witnesses sworn in and with an opportunity for members of Congress to question those testifying. The unofficial online forum, by contrast, provides no opportunity for questions and answers, and no way to verify the identity of those submitting statements, the newspaper said.

>A spokesman for Representative John Boehner, (R-Ohio), chairman of the Education and the Workforce Committee, called that notion that Republicans were blocking hearings into issues such as pension reform “absurd.”