Overhaul On Horizon In 2010

MAY 2009 VOICE: In the midst of the worse economic conditions since the Great Depression, plans are underway in Washington, D.C. to act on Social Security reform early in 2010.

Despite having received overwhelming support in the past two Congresses for a full repeal of the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and Government Pension Offset (GPO), it has become evident that any change in Social Security would take place as part of a larger “reform” of the system.

During the 2007-2008 Congressional Session, 435 Representatives and 36 Senators cosponsored bills to fully repeal the WEP/GPO laws. President Barack Obama, along with several of his key aides, also supported past repeal efforts.

The President is expected to announce an outline for Social Security reform in the coming weeks, which will provide a basis for debate to begin on Capital Hill.

Association Legislative Liaison Shawn Duhamel, who is our point man on Social Security, recently visited Washington and had a series of meetings with Congressional leaders and staff. Duhamel, along with other Massachusetts public pension officials, also participated in the National Conference of Public Employee Retirement Systems (NCPERS) Annual Legislative Conference.

“Tim Bassett (Director of Essex Regional Retirement System) and I spent the day on Capitol Hill, meeting with members of Congress and their staffs and advocating for a repeal of the WEP/GPO laws. It was a very busy day, but we were able to speak directly with Massachusetts Congressmen Barney Frank, Jim McGovern, and Niki Tsongas,” said Duhamel.

“We also held productive meetings with the staffs of Senator Kerry, Congressmen Capuano, Neal, Tierney, and the Democrat and Republican staff directors for the House Subcommittee on Social Security. The message we received was universal: Social Security reform is likely to take place in 2010 and WEP/GPO will be considered as part of the larger legislative package. There seems to be a real commitment to finally resolving this issue.”

As the Executive Director of the Essex Regional Retirement System, Bassett was able to share firsthand accounts of how the WEP/GPO have a devastating impact on retirees. “Women account for 58% of retirees in Essex County and are hit particularly hard by the offset laws,” says Bassett. “It is important for Congress to be able to hear firsthand accounts of how these awful laws are hurting real people.”

Defining “Reform”

Depending on your perspective, “reform” is a term that has many meanings. Sadly, it has also become a politically charged word, often rhetorically used by political leaders anytime change is sought to a program or policy.

So what, if anything, does the term Social Security “reform” mean to existing retirees? In short, not much beyond an opportunity to finally address the ills brought about by the dreaded WEP/GPO laws.

“By itself, Social Security ‘reform’ has no impact on current retirees. With the number of retirees growing, the program’s solvency is in danger for future generations,” explained Association President Ralph White. “Current benefit levels are not going to be reduced. What this does do is create an opportunity for us to tackle the offset laws. However, we know that retirees have children and grandchildren in the work force, or may even be still working themselves to earn their 40 quarters.”

While members will not be directly impacted by the changes to the program, future retirees and active employees from both the public and private sectors are included. For that reason, here’s an outline of what could be major areas of reform.

Grassroots Essential

As the Congress and President Obama debate solutions to the economic crisis, Association officials are working with our allies around the country in an effort to lay the groundwork for the battle that is set to come in 2010. Social Security “reform” is a highly controversial topic, which will lead to a major debate in Washington.

The Association continues to be represented by a Washington lobbying firm, specializing in Social Security. Lussier, Gregor, Vienna and Associates are our daily eyes and ears on Capitol Hill.

One group, which is essential to the ongoing national grassroots effort is the Coalition to Assure Retirement Equity (CARE), which is spearheaded by the National Association of Retired Federal Employees (NARFE) and made up of nearly 70 public employee/retiree unions and associations.

“As an active member of CARE, we continue to work closely with different groups from around the country to build support for WEP/GPO reform,” continued Duhamel. “We must keep the pressure on and see this through to the end.”

While the focus is on 2010, Association officials continue to support H.R. 235, the House bill that seeks to fully repeal both the WEP and GPO. As of April first, there were 244 cosponsors on the House Bill. All 10 Massachusetts congressmen have now signed onto the bill.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has filed S484, which is the Senate’s bill to repeal the WEP/GPO. The bill now has 18 cosponsors, including both Massachusetts Senators Kennedy and Kerry, along with Republican Senators Snowe and Collins from Maine and Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D). S484 is now before the Senate Finance Committee, chaired by Senator Max Baucus (D-MO).