Action on pension offset bill unlikely this year

fmicciche@govexec.com

The chairman of the House subcommittee weighing a proposal to reduce the controversial government pension offset on Social Security benefits Tuesday all but ruled out any action on the bill in this session of Congress.

The news came at the conclusion of a hearing on H.R. 1217, which would apply the offset only to that portion of an employee's combined pension and Social Security spousal benefit that exceeds $1,200 per month. Currently, the spousal benefit is automatically reduced by two thirds of the value of the employee's monthly pension, regardless of the amount.

"Next year we will hopefully be taking up legislation to save Social Security," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., in closing the session. "I just don't know if we will be able to get to [the GPO bill] this year."

The remark, coupled with a mention of the House's packed legislative agenda, amounted to a strong signal that the issue was dead for this year, despite the fact that H.R. 1217's sponsor, Rep. William J. Jefferson, D-La., has managed to recruit an impressive 244 co-sponsors, enough to pass the bill if it were brought to a vote on the House floor.

The bill's prospects on the other side of the Capitol are even less bright.

"Even if we got a House vote, you're still right up against the wall in the Senate," said Judy Parks of the National Association of Retired Federal Employees.

Parks was, however, optimistic about the future of GPO reform. "This is the first time the committee has turned its attention to the issue. It's up to us to keep the pressure on," she said.

The government pension offset, which Congress passed in 1977, affects Social Security spousal benefits of retirees covered under the Civil Service Retirement System. Spousal benefits are intended for people who are financially dependent on their husbands or wives. But the way Social Security law was written before 1977, people who received CSRS pensions also qualified for full spousal benefits.

The offset reduces the amount of Social Security spousal benefits CSRS retirees receive by two-thirds of the amount of their government pension. For example, if a CSRS retiree receives a monthly pension of $600, his or her Social Security spousal benefits are reduced by $400 a month.

The panel heard testimony from a number of federal, state and local employee union representatives, Social Security Administration Deputy Commissioner Jane Ross, Paul Cullinan of the Congressional Budget Office and Heritage Foundation policy analyst David John.

In a not-so-subtle attempt to garner Shaw's support, the unions offered the testimony of Ruth Pickard, a 73-year-old former postal worker from the congressman's Palm Beach district. Pickard said she was forced to return to work after her monthly retirement allowance was slashed by the pension offset.

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