Here we go again. The insatiable Highway Trust Fund needs replenishing and, as CQ Roll Call’s David Harrison reported June 13, “House Republicans now are looking at another round of ‘pension smoothing’ combined with another increase in premiums to the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which guarantees the pensions of workers with defined benefit retirement plans.”
The pension smoothing/PBGC premium increase combo is nothing but revenue smoke and mirrors. Pension smoothing just shifts revenues into the budget window; the PBGC premiums go to PBGC, not general revenues. But it’s even worse than that. Every time Congress goes to the PBGC premium well to “pay for” anything, general revenues do not gain a single dime, and responsible employers get hit with a penalty for the offense of sponsoring a defined benefit pension plan for their employees.
When Congress established the PBGC in the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 to insure retirement benefits promised by private defined benefit retirement plans, premiums were set at $1 per participant. Since then, Congress has periodically increased this basic “flat-rate” premium that applies to all pension plans — even if they are well funded and pose no risk to PBGC — and added an additional variable-rate charge for underfunded retirement plans.
It took nearly 35 years for that $1 premium to go up to $35. In the last few years, however, Congress has been treating PBGC premiums like its own personal piggy bank, and premiums are skyrocketing out of control as a result. The Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act increased premium rates from $35 to $42 per participant per year for 2013, and scheduled another increase to $49 per participant for 2018. In addition, the variable rate premium for plans with unfunded benefits was to double by 2015. Remember:The flat rate premium applies to all defined benefit plans — including those that have no unfunded benefits. So by 2018, responsible employers with no unfunded benefit promises were to be hit with an additional $14 per participant penalty (higher with indexing) so Congress could pretend that money would be available to pay for our highways.
MAP-21 was bad enough, but then the 2013 Budget Act raised premiums again. The flat rate premium is now scheduled to go up to $57 per participant in 2015 and $64 per participant in 2016, with indexing after that. (The variable rate premium is increasing again as well.) To get a budget deal, Congress chose to “raise” almost $8 billion dollars over 10 years on the backs of employers who are doing the right thing by sponsoring a defined benefit plan for their employees. The head tax these employers pay to PBGC for sponsoring a plan — even a very well-funded plan — will more than double between 2006 and 2016. It is unbelievable. It is wrong. And now we are told it is being considered again?
The pairing of “pension smoothing” with PBGC premium increases, as was done in 2012’s highway bill and is apparently being considered for the 2014 version, is particularly galling. Very few companies care if smoothing gets extended. Many companies and associations, including ASPPA, have been going to the Hill, telling Congress we would rather not have more smoothing than have more PBGC premium increases.
But smoothing and PBGC increases are a powerful drug if you are looking for a revenue raiser high. The smoothing scores as a raiser because company contributions and the corresponding deductions will decrease in the short term, raising revenue in the budget window. Then, supposedly to account for the increased risk to PBGC that comes from these lower contributions, PBGC premiums are increased and scored to “raise” even more. The end result: Good actors who pose no risk to PBGC get hit with an additional penalty for continuing to sponsor a defined benefit plan, while employers with plans that do pose a risk to PBGC get Congress’s stamp of approval to reduce funding even further.
Playing shell games with fake revenue at the expense of the defined benefit system has got to stop.
When the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 set the flat rate premium at $30 with cost of living increases going forward, it was inconceivable that 10 years later we would be more than doubling that premium. It is unconscionable that employers with well-funded pension plans will be penalized to the tune of $64 per participant in 2016 just for providing a defined benefit plan for their employees. Congress,please stop beating up the good guys. Stop raising their PBGC premiums.
Judy Miller is the Director of Retirement Policy at the American Society for Pension Professionals & Actuaries in Arlington, Va.