Democrats seek to strip retirement provisions from highway bill

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va. Gerald Herbert/AP file photo

House Democrats have introduced a measure that would strip provisions related to federal employee benefits from a major transportation bill.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., submitted an amendment to the 2012 American Energy and Infrastructure Jobs Act (H.R. 7) that would replace provisions to increase the amount government employees contribute to their pensions with a measure that would close tax loopholes for large oil companies.

Republican lawmakers inserted the provisions related to federal pensions to help pay for the massive transportation bill. Connolly’s amendment, which has the support of several Democrats including House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., would substitute the pension provisions with the tax measure to help finance the bill.

Connolly said the pension provisions were part of a “panoply of efforts to denigrate” public employees and “whack away at their pay and benefits in the middle of the game.” Connolly, along with House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., testified at a House Rules Committee hearing Tuesday evening on H.R. 7 and the federal pension related components tucked into it.

“We certainly never thought [the pension provision] would be used as funding for transportation,” Connolly said.

Issa defended the increased contributions, calling changes to the government’s retirement system “long overdue,” pointing out that raising the amount feds contribute to their pensions is “a modest increase phased in over a number of years.”

H.R. 7 incorporates provisions in stand-alone legislation (H.R. 3813) the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee approved last week to modify the federal pension system. That bill, introduced by Rep. Dennis Ross, R-Fla., would require federal workers and members of Congress to contribute a total of 1.5 percent extra over three years beginning in 2013 to their defined retirement benefits. In addition, it would eliminate a current provision in the law that supplements the retirement benefits of feds not subject to mandatory retirement who are covered under FERS and retire before age 62, or the age at which their Social Security benefits can kick in. The legislation also would place those hired after Dec. 31, 2012, under a high-five average salary calculation for annuities rather than the current high-three average pay calculation.

Rules Committee Chairman David Drier, R-Calif., said the panel plans to split H.R. 7 into three pieces so that lawmakers can vote separately on individual legislation, including Ross’ pension reform bill, in an effort to increase transparency. The bills the House passes then would be combined into a larger piece of legislation that is sent to the Senate. Several other lawmakers with committee jurisdiction over provisions within H.R. 7 testified at the hearing.

Committee Democrats, who oppose the inclusion of the Ross bill into the transportation measure, also oppose the tactic to break it out as stand-alone legislation. “I don’t know what pensions have to do with surface transportation,” said Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. Rules Committee Ranking Member Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., called the strategy to split up H.R. 7 a “last-minute manipulation.” Slaughter also referred to H.R. 7 as a “Frankenstein piece of legislation.”

In addition to the measures related to federal workers, there are other provisions dealing with energy and natural resources issues.

At least one federal employee group was not optimistic about defeating the pension bill -- whether it is incorporated in H.R. 7 or reverts to stand-alone legislation -- in the House. “Given the ongoing desire of some House members to ensure cuts to federal employees' pay and benefits, we expect this bill will pass much like the other misguided attempts to implement these provisions in the past,” said Jessica Klement, government affairs director for the Federal Managers Association. “Federal employees do not deserve to be pawns in the game of government spending.”

During Tuesday’s hearing, Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C, said she respects federal employees, identifying herself as one. Foxx said the reforms on the table are not an attack on feds, but rather a common-sense solution to what has become a too generous pension system. “It is very clear that federal employees have a much better situation financially as far as retirement is concerned than the average American, and that should not be,” Foxx said.

The Obama administration issued a statement Tuesday evening saying President Obama would veto H.R. 7 because it “jeopardizes safety, weakens environmental and labor protections, and fails to make the investments needed to strengthen the nation’s roads, bridges, rail, and transit systems.” The statement did not single out the pension portion.

Debate on H.R. 7 and its related components, including the federal pension provisions, is expected to continue on Wednesday.

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