National Press Club

Senator Brown pushes pension rescue at Headliners Luncheon

April 13, 2018 | By Lawrence Feinberg |

National Press Club President Andrea Edney meets with Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio before he spoke at a Club Headliners Luncheon.

National Press Club President Andrea Edney meets with Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio before he spoke at a Club Headliners Luncheon.

Photo/Image: Noel St. John

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, made a strong appeal for federal help to prop up industry-wide pension plans for 1.5 million workers and retirees. He said the plans, most established under labor union contracts, are facing insolvency.

Speaking April 12 at a National Press Club Headilners Luncheon, Brown said failure of the plans to pay promised benefits would not only harm those expecting them but would probably trigger a massive taxpayer bailout of the federal agency that insures worker pensions. The agency, the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., already is confronting major deficits.

Brown is running for a third term this year in a state carried by President Donald Trump in 2016.

He said he agreed with Trump's decision to raise tariffs on steel, aluminum, and other imports from China. But he said he wished the president had not characterized the move as part of a "trade war."

"It's a trade enforcement action," Brown said. He said the tariffs are a tool and should be temporary. "I think it's a way to bring China to the table," he said.

Brown said the Chinese have violated international trade agreements by subsidizing steel production and other export industries.

He said the United States needs to tell the Chinese: "You're not going to cheat when you make steel. You're not going to cheat when you make aluminum....You're not going to continue to subsidize production at the expense of American workers."

Brown said lobbying by union members, particularly Teamsters and Min Workers, had played a major role in getting Congress to create a bipartisan Joint Committee on the Solvency of Multi-employer Pension Plans as part of the bipartisan budget deal last month. Brown co-chairs the 16-member panel with Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah.

The committee was instructed to report a bill by the end of November if it can obtain support from at least five members of each party. He said he was optimistic they would reach an agreement.

Brown said the committee's starting point would be a pension rescue bill he introduced last year. It is named after a retired teamster, Butch Lewis, who died of a stroke in late 2015 after learning that his pension might be cut by 70 percent. Such drastic cuts are permitted by legislation passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in 2014.

Large benefit cuts would have a "devastating" effect on communities and small businesses, as well as on retirees and still might not restore the plans to solvency, Brown said. His bill would give the plans low-interest federal loans to be repaid over 30 years from investment income. Critics have said repayment is unlikely and would open the way to federal rescues of other under-funded private pensions.