NRLN Advice On How Retirees Should Grade Congress And The Candidates

            Before Election Day and before the current monomania over war with Iraq succeeds in tossing virtually every other important issue out the window, NRLN thought it would be useful to remind retirees of the unhappy fact that Congress has failed to enact any of the priority legislation of vital interest to retirees and their families and shows no signs of being capable of doing so.  Among the dead, dying, or stillborn, are the following: 

1.                  A modest pension reform bill that would attempt to prevent a repetition of Enron and Enron-type retirement plan meltdowns. 

2.                  An  HMO reform bill that would prevent fast-buck HMO operators from depriving both retirees and active workers of their promised medical and other health benefits that they need to stay well, get well, or even survive. 

3.                  A retiree health benefits protection law modeled after HR 1322, introduced by Rep. John F. Tierney (D. Mass.) or S. 2904, introduced by Sen. Paul Wellstone (D. Minn.), which would bar companies from canceling or reducing retiree health benefits after an employee retires so that retirees do not have to raid their precious pensions and savings to make up for their employer’s health benefit treachery or lose their company health benefits altogether. 

4.                  A Medicare prescription drug benefit that would also prevent companies from reneging on existing prescription drug benefit commitments made to Medicare-eligible retirees and preclude the substitution of generic drugs for non-generic drugs, where the retiree’s doctor determines that only a non-generic drug is of effective value for the retiree. 

5.                  An executive compensation and tax reform bill that would curb executive pay and perk abuse --- the kind that tends to rob retirees and workers of reasonably anticipated improvements to their pension and health benefits --- and would require, among other things, companies to account for stock options or expenses on their income statements as well as eliminate offshore company tax shelters. 

Of course, this is not the end of the story. The next Congress, the 108th, might enact all of these measures or even better ones, and make up for the glaring failures of the current Congress. But that assumes that the next Congress is properly motivated and that is where this November’s elections will prove decisive. 

Retirees are one of the most significant voting blocs in the country and if retirees sit on their hands or vote for candidates as if their positions on legislation helpful to retirees was of secondary importance, next year’s Congress will be just as bad as this year’s in terms of getting the job done.

Retirees will only be shooting themselves in their collective feet if, before committing themselves to an incumbent or the incumbent’s challenger, they fail to pin down either as to their respective positions on the 5 key legislative items discussed earlier. It is vital that, regardless of their current political party affiliation, retirees only endorse or vote for candidates that have visibly supported these legislative initiatives or will pledge to do so in the new Congress.

Moreover, no Congressional candidate should get a free pass because of his or her position on Iraq. Regardless of the resolution of the Iraq controversy, it will not protect retirees against the real or potential loss or erosion of their pension or health benefits. Even if retirees agree with where a candidate stands on Iraq, the failure of such a candidate to exercise independent judgment or moral leadership on key retiree issues means that the candidate is essentially anti-retiree and does not deserve the opportunity to represent retirees in Congress.

Last but not least, it is critical that retirees not be put off or conned by a candidate’s assertion that the strong reform measures endorsed by NRLN would cause employers to abandon or restrict the pension or health benefit programs they offer. For example, in the October issue of the AARP Bulletin the president of a leading employee benefits trade association is quoted as saying that even reforms designed to curtail 401(k) investment losses (like in Enron) “could induce [employers] to make a less generous match” in their contributions to the plan (or, presumably, to forego making matching contributions altogether).

AARP does not appear to respond to this contention, which is not surprising given that AARP has used almost the same argument to withhold its endorsement of HR1322 and S2904 --- namely, that, in AARP’s view, stopping employers from reneging on their health benefit promises to retirees would cause employers to fold their retiree health plans. It is a shame that the most prominent retiree organization in the country is confused about this matter but the fact is that employers provide pension and health benefits not out of the goodness of their hearts but for competitive reasons and in order to attract and keep hardworking, loyal and skillful employees.

The employers and the candidates for Congress who protest rules designed to make pension and health programs more safe and reliable do so at the cost of discouraging the type of employee who helps business succeed. This is the attitude which has led to the current crisis of confidence in corporate America and put the Nation’s economy in reverse.

All retirees should unite around candidates that will pledge to take the strongest measures to fight corporate corruption and safeguard pension and health benefits. That is not only good policy for retirees but good policy for the country as a whole.