Tuesday, November 29, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Griffin bill a long shot

Every vulnerable freshman congressman—veteran ones, too—must engage in a bit of theater for the voters. You are not going to get bills passed, but you must act like a mover and shaker.

So Rep. Tim Griffin announced the other day that he was introducing a bill to end pensions for members of Congress and that when he got that done he was going to end pensions for all other federal government workers except people in the military and post office employees (too many of those voters in the Second District). The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette carried the story above the fold on the front page Monday: “Griffin aims to end lawmaker pensions.” His predecessor, Vic Snyder, never got such attention in 14 years in Congress.

Few would mourn if Griffin were successful in ending congressional pensions or if the government retirement system were reformed in some other way. But it is not going to happen. The head of the federal workers union scoffed when he was told of Griffin’s bill, the most recent in a number of similar bills. “Much ado about nothing,” he said of the notion that Congress would eliminate its own pensions.

“That will be the day,” he said.

Our sentiments exactly. But millions of voters want to hear that some punishment is going to be meted out to members of Congress (current approval rating, 9 percent) and government workers, whose standing with the public is only marginally better than that of congressmen, senators, people in the media and bank robbers.

Reforming or eliminating government pensions is the rage this year, even more so than in the past. A number of congressmen have introduced bills or announced that they were joining as sponsors. Rep. Howard Coble of Florida declined to participate in the retirement system when he went to Congress 27 years ago and has introduced bills from time to time to alter the system. He’s trying again to change the worst feature of the federal employees retirement system, the authority for members of Congress to draw a small pension at the age of 62 after serving only five years in Congress. Coble would not allow them to qualify for any pension except Social Security unless they had been in office at least 12 years.

Griffin’s bill is not going to become law, although the House leadership will give him and other vulnerable congressmen good committee hearings and perhaps a committee vote on their bills before the next election. But everyone will take care to see that none of them is passed because, if one did, President Obama would sign it in a minute.

Federal employees have a softer landing than most American workers. Their retirement consists of Social Security (yes, federal workers and members of Congress pay into Social Security like everyone else), a pension based on their length of service and pay and funded by matching contributions of 8 percent from the worker and the government (that’s you, the taxpayers). They also may contribute to a 401(k) account, but it is not matched.

Time was when most big employers and many small ones provided separate retirement plans funded by employer and worker contributions. But more and more businesses in the past two decades have ended or scaled back their employee retirement plans and left retirement planning to workers. Many offer 401(k) plans, which allow an employee to put part of his or her earnings into a savings plan that will not be taxed until money is withdrawn. Griffin said government workers should enjoy no better retirement than private employees who have no retirement except Social Security.

This is supposed to be a budget-balancing strategy. But ending congressional pensions altogether would not reduce the deficit by more than a fraction of a hundredth of one percent. Eliminating all federal retirement plans would indeed make a dent in the deficit and, of course, in the comfort of workers’ senior years.

That is only idle conjecture because no one has any expectation that Griffin’s bill or any of the others will become law. That is not the plan. The plan is for Griffin to get credit for beating up on Congress and government workers and trying single-handedly to close the budget deficit. It seems to be working very well, but we won’t know until Election Day.