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Public Statements

Pension Security and Transparency Act of 2005

Location: Washington, DC

PENSION SECURITY AND TRANSPARENCY ACT OF 2005 -- (Senate - November 16, 2005)


Mr. KENNEDY. Madam President, the retirement security of millions of hard-working Americans is at risk. Millions of our fellow citizens have worked hard all of their lives, played by the rules. They have been dedicated and loyal workers only to find their promised pensions disappear when they retire. They worked faithfully, assuming their retirements would be their golden years. But then suddenly it all disappears. The pension plan is in financial trouble and their retirement dreams are being wiped away. This is exactly what has happened to millions of loyal American workers.

In the past 5 years, 700 pension plans have gone into crisis, and millions of workers have lost $8 billion in pension benefits that they had been promised. It is a crisis. We see it with our airline workers. We see it with our workers in manufacturing industries. We see it with our construction workers and sales clerks at the store and so many of our neighbors.

It is a crisis, and this bill responds to it by saving their pensions.

Large numbers of Americans are increasingly concerned about their retirement security and rightfully so. Each leg of the three-legged stool of retirement--private pensions, private savings, and Social Security--is in jeopardy.

Many Americans find they are unable to save anything toward their retirement. In fact, the personal savings rate has now fallen below zero. Americans are spending more than they earn. It is no wonder when wages are stagnant and costs are soaring for basic necessities such as energy, housing, health care, and education.

The Bush administration continues to propose to privatize Social Security, which would put the reliability of future benefits in that landmark and highly successful program in jeopardy.

Many workers have no private pension at all. Only half of American private sector workers have a pension through their job. And 2.7 million fewer private sector workers have a pension today than in 2000. Listen to that: 2.7 million fewer private sector workers have a pension today than in 2000. Most workers who do have a pension today have only a 401(k) account as their pension, but many have nothing saved in these accounts. Even those who are saving do not have enough to live on in retirement. More than half of the workers approaching retirement have less than $43,000 in their 401(k), and workers who rely on these accounts face the constant risk of investments that perform poorly.

These problems make pensions with defined benefits more critical than ever because they are secure. They provide a known monthly benefit for life. They are ensured by the Federal Government. But they are becoming much rarer today, as businesses shift away from them.

In the early 1980s, almost 40 percent of American workers were covered by secure pensions. Today, that number is only 20 percent. Yet, while workers' pensions are being cut, executives' pensions are increasingly generous.

A recent study found that 25 percent of the CEOs of 500 large companies had been promised retirement benefits of more than $1 million a year. Why should Ken Lay of Enron or Bernie Ebbers of WorldCom walk away with millions of dollars in guaranteed pensions after driving their employees' pensions into the ground?

On this chart, we see this rather dramatic decline in terms of what is happening to workers, particularly in defined benefit programs. We find that the CEOs are being well taken care of. Here is Ken Lay. Enron required the employees to invest in the company stock and then lied to the workers, lied about the state of the company's finances. As stock prices plunged on the news of the corporate mismanagement, employees were blocked from selling their stock. This is an area we have dealt with, I think, quite effectively in our reforms. And 11,000 employees lost $1 billion in retirement savings during that period of time. We have the example of the WorldCom CEO. Bernie Ebbers was given a $1.5 million-a-year pension. He was later convicted of accounting fraud. Thirty percent of the employees' 401(k) money was invested in the company stock. When WorldCom stock plunged in value, 93,000 workers and retirees with WorldCom 401(k) accounts lost hundreds of millions of dollars in their retirement savings.

These are issues that are enormously important. I think when we were getting started, in terms of the debate on pension reform, most Americans were wondering what the Congress was going to do about these issues. They were less aware of the fact that the defined benefit programs have been gradually in decline, the kind of pension program that provides the best kind of security to American workers. And they were not familiar with other factors: the drop in the savings accounts, the fact that so many of the 401(k)s have been buffeted around by the stock market and have not been enough to provide for a secure income.

But they are increasingly aware now. I think as the debate took place earlier this spring about the solvency of Social Security, people have focused on the solvency of Social Security and have also thought about their retirement. When they think about their retirement, obviously, they are concerned about their pensions.

But we have also seen that workers have lost dramatically over the period of these past several years. In the last 5 years, workers have lost $8 billion. That is $8 billion workers have lost in the last 5 years. For those pensions, workers give up an increase in their pay, they give up maybe a reduction in the amount of hours they have to work, they give up other kinds of benefits. That is in order to put something aside in terms of pensions they are allegedly going to be guaranteed at the time they finish working for their company. And still, we have seen that amount of money--$8 billion--that has been relied on by American workers effectively wiped out and disappeared. That is why the legislation we have is so important.

When a major pension plan fails, it places a strain on the entire system. The Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, which ensures these pension plans, has moved from a surplus in 2001 to a deficit of $23 billion today. Our pension insurance system protects the retirement earnings of over 43 million Americans, and we must do what it takes to see that it is there for the years to come.

These are serious problems that require immediate action by Congress. The pending bill adopts a broad approach, with stronger rules for funding, expanded disclosure, so workers are going to know the stability and the financial security they have with their pension. It includes other new protections for American workers: It strengthens the existing pension plans by requiring companies to fund their pensions that workers have earned. It takes steps to prevent future pension failures and recognizes that workers who are increasingly in charge of investing their own retirement savings need additional help--two very important points.

There is going to be the help and assistance, through the PBGC, to help companies, as they are looking at sort of more financial difficulty, to make sure these pensions are going to be safe and secure. A front-end warning system built into this legislation with flexibility for negotiations--that is very important. And information that is going to be made available to workers about their own retirement--that is enormously important.

The reforms in this bill allow troubled pension plans the leeway they need to get back on their feet. The current rules would require companies to pay large amounts into their troubled pension plans right away. That is unrealistic and could force many companies to drop their pension plans altogether. That would hurt workers. Our reforms allow companies to save their troubled plans by increasing payments gradually over a longer period of time. We provide a realistic payment schedule but strengthen the current rules for single-employer pension plans over time by requiring companies to fund 100 percent of their pension promises to workers. These workers have earned their pensions over a lifetime of hard work, foregoing raises and other benefits. Yet current law allows many companies to lag behind in paying for them. Our legislation solves this problem by requiring companies to pay more into their pensions in a fair and predictable way.

Our legislation also recognizes the power of public disclosure and the urgent need for more effective oversight of pension plans. Under current law, workers receive little financial information about their pensions, and what they do receive is often years out of date. They have earned these pensions, and they deserve to know whether these funds are there to pay them. That is very important and one of the most important changes to the current system: giving the notification to workers.

Our bill ensures that workers and retirees receive up-to-date information each year. The bill also provides incentives to keep pensions financially healthy by tying executive compensation to pension health. Executives should not be able to feather their own retirement nests while workers lose their nest eggs. Our legislation prohibits corporate executives from putting company funds into their own retirement trusts when the pensions of rank-and-file workers are underfunded. That is very important. It should be obvious. Justice demands it. But we will make sure that it is implemented.

Recent headlines show that many companies are using bankruptcy courts to abandon their pension plans. Hundreds of thousands of workers and retirees at companies such as United Airlines, US Airways, Bethlehem Steel, and LTV Steel are now without the pensions they worked so hard to earn.

The bill also contains specific provisions to save airline pensions by offering companies a specialized payment program. And I know that has been reviewed earlier in the debate.

In addition, our legislation addresses the needs of nearly 10 million workers and retirees who receive pensions through multiemployer plans. These are the workers who clean our office buildings and hotel rooms, sell us our groceries, build our homes and schools and highways and deliver goods across the country. Many of them are in industries where they have to move from job to job and would not be able to earn a pension at all without these multiemployer plans, since their employers, particularly small businesses, could not afford to offer a pension plan of their own.

The majority of these plans are in strong financial shape. But the recent economic downturn and weak stock market have put some of these plans in financial difficulties similar to those facing single-employer plans. We owe it to these employees to protect their pensions now, instead of acting only when they are about to fail.

Hybrid pension plans, including cash balance plans, have a growing role in our retirement system. They have a number of advantages. They provide secured, guaranteed pensions. They are attractive to younger workers and those such as parents caring for children. But older workers can lose out when their companies switch to these plans because they lose a large portion of the benefits they were promised. Our legislation requires companies that are going to switch to these plans to protect the benefits that workers have already earned. That is enormously important.

I want to highlight another very important area and that is the legislation also includes very important provisions from the Women's Pension Protection Act that I introduced with Senator Snowe. Retirement security is essential for all Americans, but too often we fail to meet the needs of women on this basic issue. Women live longer than men, but they continue to earn far less in wages over their lifetimes. They are also much less likely to earn a pension. These factors translate into seriously inadequate retirement income for vast numbers of women.

The realities of this injustice are grim. According to the most recent data, only 28 percent of women age 65 and over are receiving private pension income, and for those who do, the average is only $3,800 per year, compared to $8,100 for men. Minority women are in even more desperate straits. Only 20 percent of African-American women and 9 percent of Hispanic women receive a pension. These disparities are a major reason why nearly one in five elderly single women lives in poverty.

Our legislation gives them much greater retirement security. Widows will receive more generous survivor benefits. Divorced women will have a greater ability to receive a share of their former husband's pension after divorce. These are long-overdue improvements in the private pension system so retirement savings programs will be more responsive to the realities of women's lives and careers.

American workers and their families rightly expect Congress to protect their hard-earned pensions. This legislation is an important start to meeting this challenge. Madam President, I note the Senator from Pennsylvania is in the Chamber. I want to quickly review this legislation, again.

On this chart is effectively a description--I know the writing is small for those who are watching--but this is really the backbone of this legislation. It requires companies to fund their promises. It helps prevent future pension failures. I have outlined, very briefly, in my comments how that is done--by greater flexibility and negotiation. It gives workers timely and accurate information on pension plan finances. That does not exist today. Well, it exists but not in an efficient or effective manner. Many times it takes months or even years to get that timely information. This legislation will provide it in a timely and accurate way, which is enormously important for workers.

It protects the workers and businesses in multiemployer pensions. We have the single pensions, as we mentioned, and now also in the multiemployer pensions they face different issues. But we have strengthened and provided and followed a number of recommendations that were made from the business community and the worker community to strengthen those programs.

It protects older workers in cash balance plan conversions. I have outlined the advantages of cash balance plans to younger workers, but to older workers it can work disadvantageously. This legislation provides a very important way of protecting those who have been reliant on existing programs rather than a cash balance plan. That is enormously important. Otherwise there could be some significant injustice.

It gives workers access to independent investment advice to avoid the kind of Ken Lay situation where they had the requirement of investing in the corporation and were refused, when the company was going south, the ability to sell employer stock, and the workers took a bath. That was true in my State with Polaroid, a similar kind of situation and a tragic situation that involved abuse of the pension system at a time when a number of the executive branch did exceedingly well. We are giving access to independent investment advice, and workers can make their judgments. These are what we call the Bingaman proposals. They have been worked out in a bipartisan way and have solid support in the Senate.

It adopts the post-Enron worker pension protections. It stops corporate executives from lining their pockets when workers' pensions suffer. This is to deal with the issue I mentioned briefly before, where the corporate executives can make out while the workers are losing.

It provides greater retirement security for widows and former spouses. This is enormously important because of the injustice with regard to women and the pension system, which is extraordinary. Senator Snowe and I have been working for a number of years to try to address that. I am grateful to our chairman, Mr. Enzi, for reviewing these matters in great detail and including these provisions. This is enormously important.

This is an important piece of legislation. It doesn't solve all of the problems, but it will certainly do a great deal in terms of ensuring workers in the future of the security of their pensions. We are very hopeful, with the strong bipartisan support we have been able to develop in the Senate, that we can carry these very important protections for workers, for companies, for women, for the single employer pensions, for multiemployer pensions, through and have them enacted into law.

I reserve the remainder of my time.

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