It's no surprise that 60 percent of Americans, according to a new poll from Public Policy Polling for the leftist Daily Kos website, think that the current Congress is the worst ever. Of course, we don't expect the Daily Kos to note that most of the problem comes from an obstructionist Senate leadership that refuses to put anything passed by the House to a vote. However, when Congress does act in a bipartisan fashion it tends just to make things worse (with rare exceptions like the recent JOBS Act).
A prime example is the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), also known as the highway bill, a two-year reauthorization of surface transportation spending that passed in late June. Once it was enacted, special interests put on their best jilted-lover act, wailing about not receiving every handout they had requested.
So what did Congress do? It resorted to tricks and obfuscations to provide "pay-fors" for new spending programs. Such budgetary legerdemain allows members of Congress to claim with a straight face that their new spending somehow reduces the burden on the taxpayer, even as it actually increases it.
One provision that received little attention contains a significant pay-for used to fund the highway bill's spending programs and keep the legislation "budget neutral."
For this two year measure, Congress relied on 10 years of budget offsets — including a dangerous accounting gimmick known as "pension smoothing." This provision reduces pension funding requirements under the Pension Protection Act of 2006 by allowing plan managers to assume higher investment returns — perversely at a time of very low interest rates on — low-risk investments such as bonds.
The effect of this move is to make pensions seem better funded than they are, which allows fund managers to reduce tax-free pension contributions. By reducing contributions, more employer income will be taxable, which is why Congress expects this trick to generate $9.467 billion in additional tax revenues over 10 years.
In May, the Pension Practice Council of the American Academy of Actuaries wrote to members of Congress expressing concerns that the resulting contribution amounts will be "insufficient to settle obligations or fund obligations with a low risk portfolio and do not provide meaningful information about the current funded status of [a] plan." In other words, actuaries are worried that the change would give pension managers a license to make up numbers, further underfund already underfunded defined benefit pension plans, and increase the risk of a taxpayer-backed pension fund bailout via the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).
The PBGC is the federal agency charged with insuring private sector pensions. It is funded by premiums paid by insured firms. However, those premiums are set by Congress, which for years has set them too low, largely due to persistent lobbying by insured firms — the vast majority of which are unionized. As a result, the PBGC now has a $26 billion deficit. That means that it cannot pay for any more pension plans for which it might become responsible — as its reluctance to take on American Airlines' pension obligations shows. As the pressure on the PBGC's resources grows, so will calls for a taxpayer-funded PBGC bailout.
The Academy recommended a number of policy tweaks that could have improved pension funding and disclosure of funding status, while reducing the bailout risk to taxpayers. Congress, in a desperate attempt to fund MAP-21, ignored all of these suggestions. Removing the pension smoothing provision would have meant losing 9 percent of the total revenue and offsets needed to pay for the surface transportation spending levels set by Congress. House and Senate leadership were out of options — they certainly were not contemplating cutting spending and living within the programs' means.
So in order to keep things going with a minimum of fuss, Congress has degraded actuarial standards for the nation's private pensions — at a time when one of Americans' chief concerns is whether they'll have enough to live on when they retire. There are many words to describe this behavior; irresponsible is probably the most polite.
For the nation to emerge from the protracted crisis that has dragged on since 2007, it will need a complete cultural change in Congress where tricks like this as utterly unacceptable. Until then, there is little hope.