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Off With the Offsets


The long-standing campaign to repeal two old laws that cut Social Security benefits for federal retirees began anew this week.

Reps. Howard Berman, D-Calif., Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, and Buck McKeon, R-Calif., revived the fight with a press conference on Capitol Hill Tuesday, bemoaning the 1977 Government Pension Offset and the 1983 Windfall Elimination Provision laws and unveiling a new bill to rescind them.

Both affect federal employees who entered the government before 1984 and are covered by the Civil Service Retirement System. Employees in CSRS do not pay into Social Security, receiving a government pension instead.

The Government Pension Offset law cuts Social Security benefits that some employees, including widows or widowers, would have received from their spouses. The Windfall Elimination Provision reduces Social Security benefits for public employees who also worked in private sector jobs where they paid into the Social Security system.

Veteran federal employees and their counterparts in state and local government loathe the laws. For years, groups that represent these workers have pushed Congress to repeal them. In the last Congress, 327 lawmakers co-sponsored a House bill to do so, but it never came to a vote.

This time around, the Democrats are in charge, and the newly introduced bill already has 182 co-sponsors. Berman and crew on Tuesday gave a valiant description of the injustices the laws impose, showcasing teachers, police officers and union folks who are hurting due to their effects.

Margaret Baptiste, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, spoke for the federal sector.

"The Social Security offsets deny many of our older members, particularly women, the dignified retirement they expected," she said.

NARFE's numbers show that as of December 2003, about 400,000 people were affected by the offset and 635,000 by the windfall elimination. Those large numbers include nonfederal public workers, and mean that federal employees enjoy the support of powerful lobby groups like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the National Education Association.

Repealing the bills would be expensive. In 2003, then-Social Security Commissioner Jo Anne Barnhart testified that abandoning the two laws would cost $62.2 billion over the next 10 years. The lean budget year combined with the Democrats' new pay-as-you-go rules will likely prove lethal to the effort.

So, despite newly empowered Democrats and a coalition with oomph, the lawmakers -- unprompted -- practically acknowledged defeat before the new round of fighting began.

"It will continue to face a very uphill battle," Doggett said.

"It's a tough budgetary issue," McKeon said.

"Difficult fights take a long period of time," Berman said.

So for now, the laws remain, as do their accompanying cries of indignation.

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