Railroad Retirement legislation rolls in Congress

H.R. 1140 has 280 co-sponsors; S.697 has 40; Bush statements loom

Rail labor lobbyists made great strides in securing support for the Railroad Retirement and Survivors' Improvement Act of 2001 in both the House and Senate during March, but negative statements from the White House threaten to derail timely passage of the legislation.

H.R. 1140 was introduced on March 21 and replaced H.R. 180, which was introduced by Congressman Bud Shuster. Shuster's sudden retirement in January left H.R. 180 without a major sponsor in Congress, and the rail labor coalition supporting the measure felt it would improve the legislation's chances for passage if it were re-introduced.

H.R. 1140 quickly gained momentum and received 72 co-sponsors in less than 24 hours. As members of the House left Capitol Hill for the Easter Recess in early April, H.R. 1140 had 280 co-sponsors.

The bipartisan leadership of the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee re-introduced H.R. 1140, including Committee Chairman Don Young (R-AK); ranking member James Oberstar (D-MN); Jack Quinn (R-NY), chairman of the Subcommittee on Railroads; and ranking member Bob Clement (D-TN).

Representative Quinn emphasized the importance of H.R.1140.

"This legislation is critical to the hundreds of thousands of retired rail employees and their families across the country," said Quinn. "Coming from a railroad family, I have seen first-hand the amount of hard work and long hours that goes into working on a railroad."

Action on the Railroad Retirement legislation moved to the Senate on April 4. A companion bill to H.R. 1140 -- S. 697 -- was introduced by Senators Orrin Hatch (R-UT) and Max Baucus (D-MT), who are the authors of S. 697. Including Senators Hatch and Baucus, S.697 had 34 original co-sponsors. As Senators went to their home districts for the Easter Recess, S. 697 had 41 Senate co-sponsors.

BLE and GIA members are encouraged to view the list of co-sponsors in this issue. If their Congressperson's name is not on the list, then BLE and GIA members should act. The Senator or Representative should be contacted at his/her home office during the Easter Recess and encouraged to support the Railroad Retirement and Survivors' Improvement Act of 2001.

Unfortunately, statements made by President George W. Bush in his budget proposal, "A Blueprint for New Beginnings," give the distinct impression that the White House may stand opposed to the Railroad Retirement package.

"The railroad retirement system's pension program is not fully funded like other private industry pension plans; indeed, there is a $39.7 billion unfunded liability," Bush states in his budget proposal. "Any examination of the program should set as first priorities ending taxpayer subsidies to the program and ensuring the industry funds its workers' pensions."

Regardless of the dubious validity of these statements, it's clear that supporters of H.R. 1140 and S. 697 will face an uphill battle.

In a strongly worded letter to the House Budget Committee, however, members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee defended the Railroad Retirement legislation and questioned the accuracy of Bush's statements.

"The Committee is disappointed by the statement concerning the Railroad Retirement system in the FY 2002 President's Budget," the letter states. "This statement implies that the Railroad Retirement system is receiving massive federal subsidies and is not capable of meeting its future pension obligations. This is not true. According to the most recent actuarial valuation, the railroad retirement system will not experience any cash flow problems for the next 75 years under the most likely economic assumptions. Railroads and their employees pay a very heavy payroll tax burden to fund the system, which, as a result, is financially sound. These payroll taxes have produced significant reserves for the system - over six years worth of full benefit payments. This healthy reserve is one of the bases for, and would be protected by, the railroad retirement reform legislation approved 391-25 by the House last fall and which this Committee will consider in the near future."

If President Bush's apparent threats come to fruition, it will mark the second year in a row the Railroad Retirement legislation has been killed by partisan politics.

Last year in the 106th Congress, H.R. 4844 passed the House by a 391-25 majority and had the support of 83 Senators. However, it was killed in committee by three ultra-conservative Senators - Pete Domenici (R-NM), Phil Gramm (R-TX) and Don Nickles (R-OK) - who successfully convinced Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-MS) to hold the bill from consideration by the full Senate.

H.R. 1140 is identical to last year's H.R. 4844, and contains all the benefit improvements originally agreed to by rail management and labor -- long-needed improvements in the surviving spouse benefit, full retirement annuity at age 60 with 30 years of service, elimination of artificial caps on benefits, vesting after five years instead of 10, and provisions that require the carriers to insure future fund solvency with future tax increases if necessary.


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2001 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers