American Miners Pension Act sparks regional divide in Congress

Source: The Washington Times

The latest attempt to secure benefits for tens of thousands of retired coal miners pits Appalachia against the West, with battle lines drawn by region and not by party as Congress seeks to solve a looming crisis by pumping federal loans into failing pension plans.

Last week, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced the American Miners Pension Act, legislation aimed at ensuring the pensions of 87,000 retired union miners — and another 20,000 who will retire in the coming years — don’t go belly up. The bill is the latest attempt to secure the financial future of miners and comes on the heels of Congress acting late last year to preserve health care benefits for workers and their families.

But while the health care issue attracted wide support, the matter of pensions is proving to be trickier. In addition to opposition from Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who believes broader pension reform is the answer as opposed to a bill tailored just to miners, geographic differences have been amplified.

At last week’s press conference announcing the bill, lawmakers spoke openly of how the policy battle is, in essence, pitting one state against another.

“Wyoming is not on board. … This is where we have our work cut out for us,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, West Virginia Republican and a co-sponsor of the bill along with Sen. Joe Manchin, West Virginia Democrat, Rep. David McKinley, West Virginia Republican, and Rep. Peter Welch, Vermont Democrat.

Indeed, while Wyoming has its own rich history of coal mining, lawmakers there remain deeply opposed to the miners’ pension act.

Sen. Michael B. Enzi, Wyoming Republican, has opposed similar efforts in the past and once again stands in the way of the bill.

“Senator Enzi has the deepest respect for coal miners and has said time and time again that coal miners play an integral part in our economy,” the senator’s spokesman, Max Donofrio, said in a statement. “But he has serious concerns with legislation designed to bailout of the United Mine Workers of America’s (UMWA) underfunded pension plan. While it might appear that loaning taxpayer dollars into the pension plan with the American Miners Pension Act would be a worthy cause, Senator Enzi believes that in reality it would be a perilous treatment that wouldn’t cure the disease.”

Mr. Enzi also said the legislation relies on “budget gimmicks” that will add to the nation’s debt.

To shore up the miners’ pensions — which Mr. Manchin and others say are backed by the federal government under a decades-long commitment initially put in place by former President Truman — the bill would transfer unused funds from the federal Abandoned Mine Land program into pensions.

More important, it would direct the Treasury Department to lend the pension plans up to $600 million each year with an interest rate of 1 percent, and the pension funds would pay back only interest for the first decade.

In trying to get skeptical lawmakers, such as Mr. Enzi, on board supporters have framed the issue as a moral one.

“If it wasn’t for these hard-working men and women, … you wouldn’t have the country you have today,” Mr. Manchin said last week at a press conference unveiling the bill. “We’ve got to fix this and we’ve got to make sure we take care of the people.”

Still, Mr. Enzi and others dispute that the federal government actually has any obligation to bail out the union pension plans. Mr. Enzi’s spokesman maintained that the issue is “a private agreement made between the members and the UMWA.”

While the regional battle certainly makes for an unique political fight, the bill looks to have little chance of going anywhere. The pension plans are projected to remain solvent through 2022, giving lawmakers little incentive to act now.

Furthermore, Mr. McConnell isn’t throwing his weight behind the measure.

“The UMWA pension is one of many struggling multiemployer pensions, and Sen. McConnell believes that it would be best addressed through broader pension reform,” said a spokesman for the Senate leader.