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Biden’s COVID-19 Bill Championed As A Boon For Failing Ohio Valley Pensions

Aaron Payne

Major unions and one of their leading allies in the U.S. Senate are hailing tens of billions of dollars allocated for shoring up struggling union pension funds

The funding added to President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, dubbed the Butch-Lewis Act, would provide $86 billion to dozens of failing union pension plans across the country, including the Teamsters, carpenters, builders, and more. Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown said Tuesday the funding will save tens of thousands of Ohioans their pensions “earned over a lifetime.” He said he called some of those with pensions last weekend.

“The relief in their voices, the excitement, the tears. They had thought their retirement, what they had planned on might have been destroyed,” Brown said.

Brown and other Ohio Valley lawmakers representing historically union-strong states had continually studied the issue in recent years as union-run pension funds with multiple employers struggled to stay afloat. Brown served on a bipartisan committee focused specifically on the issue. He originally proposed the Butch-Lewis Act as a remedy, naming it after a deceased Ohio Teamster. The funding has also received significant conservative criticism. 

Leading Republicans in Congress have called the funding wasteful spending not directly connected to pandemic relief. Congressman James Comer of Kentucky, the Republican Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, received praise from the United Mine Workers of America union last year for the passage of a bipartisan bill that secured pension benefits for miners.

“Shoring up struggling pension plans should be thoroughly evaluated on its merits, not stuck in a bill that is supposed to be about addressing the pandemic,” Comer said in a statement. “This is a COVID relief bill in name only, and the inclusion of unrelated spending items is proof that Democrat leadership is not focused on ending the coronavirus and reopening the economy.”

Other critics say this funding fails to fix the underlying issues that led union pension funds into trouble in the first place, such as a trend of low union and employer contributions into pension funds. Charles Blahous is a senior research analyst at the libertarian think tank Mercatus Center. He served as a trustee for Social Security and Medicare under the Obama administration and as deputy director of the National Economic Council under the George W. Bush administration. 

“It sends a message to every pension sponsor out there that they can bail on funding their pension promises, and that not only will there be no adverse repercussions, they’ll be rewarded for doing so providing they are politically connected,” Blahous said in a statement. “It tells those who have responsibly funded their pensions that they’re suckers.  It sends the bill to taxpayers, who did nothing to cause this.”

Brown said he doesn’t take conservative criticism of the pension funding “particularly seriously,” pointing out that many of those raising concerns now did not have concerns when Wall Street banks were bailed out in the 2008 economic crisis. 

“They want government dollars to go to the wealthiest people in the society and let everyone else fend for themselves,” Brown said, defending the pension funding. “This is fiscally sound. This will keep these pensions in good shape for 30 years.” 

Brown said he’s started conversations with Republican colleagues to try to build on this funding to reduce the financial risk for employers and unions moving forward. He said a reason why pensions were troubled was because of company bankruptcies following the 2008 recession. For example, before the passage of the Bipartisan American Miners Act, the bankruptcy of Ohio Valley coal giant Murray Energy could have imperiled the pension plan for tens of thousands of miners and their families. 

Jeff Young is managing editor of the Ohio Valley ReSource, a journalism collaboration led by Louisville Public Media.

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