Pa. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick votes with House Dems to protect union pensions

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Former Special Counsel Robert Mueller may have been the star attraction on Capitol Hill, but the majority-Democrat U.S. House was still at work Wednesday, as it passed a bill that would protect the pensions of millions of union workers nationwide — including tens of thousands in Pennsylvania.

And Democrats did it — once again — with the support of U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-1st District, who was one of several House Republicans to break ranks with the GOP. The House voted 264-169 to approve the “Butch Lewis Act,” which is named for a former Ohio Teamster.

In its current form, the legislation would prop up some 300 multi-employer pension plans across the country. The bill creates a new agency within the U.S. Treasury Department that would administer loans to cash-strapped pension plans using money from the sale of long-term bonds, according to the office of Rep. Dwight Evans, D-3rd District.

The bonds “would allow multiemployer pension plans to remain solvent, grow their assets, and pay promised benefits,” Evans’ office said, adding that proceeds from the loans would “have to be invested in low-risk investments, like an annuity or a fixed income investment. Additional assistance would be available to those plans that need it.”

As the Capital-Star’s sister site the Michigan Advance previously reported, some pension funds are already insolvent and receiving assistance from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation’s multi-employer pension program is on track to run out of money by fiscal year 2025 and currently has a deficit of $54 billion, the Advance reported.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that the bill would cost $64 million over 10 years, far less than the more than $600 million the conservative Heritage Foundation warned of last year.

The bill cleared the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, of which Evans is a member, earlier this month. It’s taken fire from conservatives, who have called the legislation “fatally flawed” and a bailout for big labor.

In a statement released after the committee’s vote, Evans said that “several thousand current and retired Acme employees in the Philadelphia region are worried that their pension plans may dry up in eight years, if not sooner,” because of “damage inflicted by the 2008 recession” and “other factors beyond workers’ control.”

The bill “would not be a bailout,” Evans added in his statement. “These plans would be required by law to pay back the loans — the federal government would simply backstop the risk, and workers wouldn’t have to go without their pensions while pension administrators struggle to shore up their long-term financial security.”

In floor remarks, U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District, said “the crisis facing multiemployer pensions isn’t some far-away event. And it’s not about politics or ideology. It’s about people’s lives and whether or not they can retire in dignity after a lifetime of hard work. American people.”

Like much of the legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled U.S. House, the bill faces an uphill battle in the GOP-led U.S. Senate.

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.

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