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Pension Security and Transparency Act of 2005

Location: Washington, DC



Mr. GRASSLEY. Mr. President, before I give my reasons to my colleagues for why they should support this legislation and why it came out of my committee, there are several thank-yous I would like to give, first to Senator Baucus because this is truly a bipartisan bill that came out of committee. In fact, I think it came out totally unanimous. Over a period of many months working with Senator Baucus, we were able to put something together to get that kind of bipartisan support.

Then later on, the HELP Committee reported a bill. There was extremely great cooperation between Senator Enzi and Senator Kennedy with Senator Baucus and me. I do not say this tongue-in-cheek, I say it as a matter of fact: I think if one can get Senator Enzi and Senator Grassley together on one side of the aisle and Senator Baucus and Senator Kennedy together on the other side of the aisle, there ought to be something that ought to pass this body.

I also lend compliments and support for helping move this bill along to Senator Mikulski and Senator DeWine because they had a very controversial amendment--they may not have thought it was controversial--and we were able to work out some understandings beyond the action on this floor to accomplish that. So we would not be here today doing this bill without Senator Mikulski and Senator DeWine's cooperation. I thank the Senator from Maryland for that, and Senator DeWine as well.

I am very pleased that the Senate now is turning their attention to what we call the Pension Security and Transparency Act, 2005. It is a bipartisan bill, and I support it. I think every Member of the Senate ought to be proud to support this bill and, of course, only a rollcall will show that.

This is a bill that is about one thing--improving the retirement security of all Americans. It will improve Americans' retirement years in many different ways. Much of the public focus on this legislation has been on the comprehensive pension funding reforms that are in the legislation. Those reforms are very important, but before I talk about those, I wish to spend a couple of minutes talking about other important provisions in the bill.

No. 1, the bill represents a completion of the post-Enron retirement plan reform that I have worked out with my good friend Senator Baucus, Democrat ranking member. We all remember that when Enron spiraled into bankruptcy and the value of that company's stock evaporated, Enron employees had 401(k) plans locked in Enron stock. They had no chance of diversifying their 401(k) portfolios, and they were blocked from selling Enron stock at the time top executives were cashing that stock out with big gains for them. This bill would say that Enron practice is unacceptable for any company in the future.

Employees should not be forced to stuff their 401(k) plans with company stock. Diversification is the most fundamental principle of sound investment strategy. The bipartisan legislation before us today then guarantees that employees have the right to diversify their 401(k) accounts.

This bipartisan bill also seeks to increase savings by adopting new rules to promote automatic enrollment in 401(k) plans. Very often, I am afraid, the hardest dollar to save is that first dollar. Once people begin to save, it can become a habit that lasts a lifetime. Automatic enrollment means that saving that first dollar will be easier, less redtape, and it means that millions of Americans then will be saving many times more than what they save today. Obviously, every month we get statistics on savings that say Americans are almost, throughout the entire globe, the ones who save the least.

The bipartisan bill before us today also simplifies retirement plan rules, making it easier and less burdensome for employers to give retirement plans to their employees. These types of changes will be particularly helpful to small businesses, which are often discouraged from sponsoring a retirement plan because of the costs, administrative costs particularly, and the redtape burdens. The bipartisan bill before us today would allow small businesses to combine a defined benefit plan with a 401(k) plan, and they would do this into one simple plan called DB(k). This type of combined plan will give employees the best of both worlds at the same time.

Speaking of combining the best of both worlds, the bipartisan bill we are considering today provides long-needed clarifications that cash balance and other types of hybrid pension plans are not inherently age discriminatory. Hybrid pensions combine positive features of both the traditional pension plan and the defined contribution plans. These plans have long provided meaningful retirement benefits to employees. Today we will help to lift the cloud of legal uncertainty over these plans. At the same time, we also ensure that the rights of participants are protected and that the plans truly do meet the needs of today's mobile workforce by requiring faster vesting of employees' benefits in those particular plans.

Finally, then, I will refer to the pension funding changes in this bill, those things that really have gotten the most attention and maybe are somewhat controversial. This bill honors a promise that we made way back in 1974, before I came to Congress, when the law governing plans, called ERISA, was enacted. That promise was made that the pensions of rank-and-file employees should not depend on the financial solvency of their particular employer. ERISA, the law, says that it is OK for a nonqualified pension of senior management to be exposed to the company's risk of bankruptcy. But then when it comes to the rank-and-file employee, people who probably had as much to do with making the company as the manager, people who worked hard all their lives in hopes of a good retirement, and a pension being a part of that good retirement--those people's golden years should not be ruined because of their employer falling on hard times.

ERISA is meant to protect against that, and we are making some changes to make sure that ERISA does what it was originally intended to do in 1974, without using the taxpayer as a possible backstop. ERISA, I hope people believe, has worked pretty well for the last 30 years. But we found that in recent years there are times that the promise of ERISA is not honored. So, today, we are here to fulfill the promise and to let the American people know that if you have been promised a pension, we are going to make sure that you receive it.

The pension funding reform in this bill also stands for another bedrock American principle that if you make a promise, you are responsible for your own promise. We all know that most companies fund their pension plans in a very responsible manner. Unfortunately, there are a few--and it only takes a few bad apples to ruin the whole barrel of apples--but a few bad apples who have abused loopholes. Those are loopholes that are in the current rules to avoid funding pensions in a way that shows that they are responsible for their own promises.

Those few who have taken advantage of these loopholes have often, in the end, dumped their pension plans on the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation, the Government agency that was set up to provide the insurance; let's say in a sense like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation does, for savers in bank accounts. These companies have essentially said we cannot pay our bills. Someone else is going to have to pay them for us. That is the PBGC.

Unfortunately, the people they want to pay are other employers who have done the right thing and have guaranteed their employees the pensions they promised. They are able to deliver on those promises. Those employers who are honest and upright get stuck with the bill, in the form of higher premiums to the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation.

I think we would all agree that is not fair, and it is no way to run a pension system. Even more unfair is the concept of a taxpayer bailout of the PBGC. One thing that I am for in this legislation is the attempt to make sure this does not happen, that the taxpayers are not laid bare for this obligation that the corporation ought to pay, but that goes back to the irresponsible actions of a few bad apples who do not fund their pensions adequately. I do not want another savings and loan situation like we had in the late 1980s coming out of bad policy in the PBGC.

As we have watched the financial condition of this Government corporation deteriorate rapidly in recent years, the prospects of such a bailout become increasingly real--in other words, a taxpayer bailout, a savings-and-loan-type bailout that we do not want to let happen. In other words, we ought to show that we have learned a lesson, and hopefully this bill is a good step showing we have learned a lesson.

The bipartisan bill we have before us today will reverse the decline over time by improving pension funding and bringing additional premium revenues into the corporation, the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. This bipartisan bill represents a huge leap forward for retirement security.

Let me say I am cognizant of the fact that we in Congress are saying that it is a huge leap forward. I think it ought to be known to all of my colleagues that the President and his staff, who were interested in this legislation, would say it is not good enough in this direction and maybe there are opportunities, hopefully along the way, for improvement.

I think, once again, in closing, I need to give thanks,

as I have already given. I start with Senator Baucus for his dedication in this legislation. He has been a great partner to work with me to advance this bill to where it is now. I also thank Chairman Enzi and Senator Kennedy. I think we have had a partnership working together as two committees on legislation because we share jurisdiction. I have to commend their dedication to important reforms that they put in their bill. They have been tireless in their efforts to get us to this point. I look forward to working closely with them and all my colleagues in the Senate as we continue to work towards the goal of getting this bipartisan legislation to the President for his signature.

I yield the floor.


Mr. GRASSLEY. The gentleman from North Carolina is correct in his understanding of the provision, that Congress intends for Treasury to have wide latitude and flexibility in determining which plans could qualify for safe harbor protection.

Mr. BURR. Mr. Chairman, do you agree that the provision is intended to allow Treasury to consider for purposes of the regulatory safe harbor cash balance plan conversions that are announced 5 or more years in advance, allow employees to continue to accrue benefits under the old formula until the conversion date and thereafter provide full protection for previously accrued benefits as well as the opportunity to ``grow into'' early retirement subsidies under the old formula; and that provide full cash balance plan accruals after conversion without wear away?

Mr. GRASSLEY. The cash balance plan conversion described by the distinguished gentleman would indeed be within the scope of the authority intended for the regulatory safe harbor.

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