Most Michigan reps. vote to protect union pensions

By: - July 25, 2019 8:54 am

U.S. Capitol via Canva

The U.S. House on Wednesday passed a bill aimed at salvaging union pensions, an issue close to the hearts of many Michigan lawmakers.

Known as the “Butch Lewis Act” in honor of a retired Ohio Teamster, H.R. 397, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Richard Neal (D-Mass.), would impact roughly 43,000 workers in Michigan and 1.3 million nationwide, supporters said.

The legislation passed 264-169, with the Michigan delegation split 10-4. U.S. Reps. Jack Bergman (R-Watersmeet), Bill Huizenga (R-Zeeland) and Tim Walberg (R-Tipton) crossed over to vote with Democrats. U.S. Rep. Justin Amash (I-Cascade Twp.) voted no, along with other Republicans.

Eight Michigan lawmakers co-sponsored the bill, with U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) as an original co-sponsor. Huizenga is the lone Michigan GOP sponsor, joining U.S. Reps. Dan Kildee (D-Flint), Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield), Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.), Elissa Slotkin (D-Holly) and Haley Stevens (D-Rochester).

“For too long, hardworking men and women have lived in fear, not knowing what’s going to happen with their pensions. Nearly 45,000 Michiganders played by the rules, did everything right, and even gave up pay raises or benefits to ensure the retirement they worked a lifetime for will be there when they need it,” said Dingell.

“This is the money hard-working men and women earned and counted on to retire with dignity and security — to afford to stay in their homes and afford their medicine. Now facing cuts, pensioners are desperate and scared of the future and don’t know where to turn. American workers have done their part, the House has done our part, now it’s time for the Senate to tell workers their pensions matter.”

The bill would establish the Pension Rehabilitation Administration (PRA) within the U.S. Department of Treasury and make loans to failing multi-employer pension funds. Those funds make up the retirement accounts for many of the country’s largest labor unions. As the Advance previously reported, some pension funds are already insolvent and receiving assistance from the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp.

The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation’s multi-employer pension program is on track to run out of money by Fiscal Year 2025 and currently has a deficit of $54 billion, Kildee’s office said.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office found that the bill would cost $64 million over 10 years, far less that the more than $600 million the conservative Heritage Foundation warned of last year.

U.S. Rep. Haley Stevens | Ken Coleman

“If we do not act now, the problem will continue to get worse,” Stevens said.* “Over 100 multi-employer pension plans are projected to run out of money within the next 20 years. If we allow these plans to fail, retirees will see their pension benefits cut by 90 percent or more. These are benefits that our retirees have worked hard for and earned, and this outcome would devastate our middle class.”

Tlaib referenced President Donald Trump’s continued attacks on her and other progressive members of Congress in a statement touting the bill’s passage.

“While the President tweets, I am fighting for workers at home,” said Tlaib. “Our retirees and workers were made a promise that if they worked hard, they would get retirement benefits that allowed for a decent quality of life. The passage of the Butch Lewis Act strengthens and delivers that promise.”

Kildee said that “every American worker who works hard and plays by the rules deserves to retire with dignity. That includes having their pension protected that they paid into their entire life. I am pleased that the U.S. House of Representatives has acted to ensure workers can count on their pensions they have earned. I will continue to fight so that all Americans are able to retire with dignity.”

Like much of the legislation passed by the Democratic-controlled U.S. House, the bill faces an uphill battle in the GOP-led U.S. Senate.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.