WASHINGTON — U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito and Rep. David McKinley joined with other lawmakers from both sides of the aisle Wednesday morning to rally outside the U.S. Capitol once again for passage of legislation to protect coal miners’ pensions.
The 1974 United Mine Workers of America Pension Plan is headed for insolvency due to coal company bankruptcies and the 2008 financial crisis. The lawmakers said the pensions of 100,000 retirees – averaging just $586 per month –are at stake.
Three bills are in play. One is Senate Bill 27, the American Miners Act, introduced by Manchin. It would amend the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act to require the Treasury Department to transfer additional funds to the pension plan from excess Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund money. The bill also increases the annual limit on transfers from $490 million to $750 million.
Two similar bills, under the name Miners Pension Protection Act are sponsored by Capito and McKinley and have been introduced in 2017, 2018 and this year. This year’s bills are S 671 and HR 935, which has 54 cosponsors.
“This should have been done over a year ago,” Manchin said. Referring to Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, he said, “Put it on the table, Mitch. Let us vote.”
Capito said she recently talked to the wife of a 35-year miner. “She’s worried every single day this is not going to continue for her family.”
Supporters from both parties in both houses will keep pushing for passage, she said. “We will not stop until we get the right result. … The time certain of when this is going to become very devastating to our miners is creeping up on us.”
McKinley said this problem has been on the radar for years. There’s been a lot of talk but no action.
“The UMWA did not cause this problem with their pension fund,” he said. It resulted from overregulation that led to mine closures and company bankruptcies. Miners were promised their pensions clear back in 1946.
There has been disagreement, he said, over how to pay for it. Some want to bundle the solution to this problem with one to maintain funding for the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp. multiemployer insurance program, which provides financial assistance to failing multiemployer plans and is expected to go insolvent by 2025.
McKinley argued the UMWA pension problem should be addressed first, then deal with the PBGC problem.
The pension plan stems from a 1946 bill signed into law by President Harry Truman in the presence of then-miners’ leader John L. Lewis. The plan was to be funded from a percentage of the proceeds of the coal mined.
“Promises made need to be promises kept,” McKinley said.
Miners were at the Capitol all day, lobbying for passage of the legislation and took part in the rally. Among them was UMWA President Cecil Roberts.
In 2007, he explained, the plan was 90 percent funded and approaching full funding, but the 2009 recession and the coal-industry bust and bankruptcies wiped out much of the funding. The recession drained $2 billion and coal company bankruptcies – where judges forgave their liabilities – drained another $4 billion.
As previously reported, by 2022-2023, the fund will be drained. If the plan collapses, beneficiaries and their dependents will be dropped into the PGBC, which would destroy that troubled program and shift the money burden form the coal companies to the taxpayers.
Roberts noted that coal company executives were awarded millions of dollars in bonuses during those bankruptcies.
“What about the people who work for living in America,” he asked. “How about them for a change?”
He said he’s talked with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who supports the bill, and he predicts it will easily pass the House.
The Senate, though, needs to ask itself a question: “What’s the right thing to do?”
The American Miners Act also adds miners affected by 2018 coal company bankruptcies to the group whose retiree health benefits are taken into account in determining the amount that Treasury must transfer under current law to the Multiemployer Health Benefit Plan.
Senate Bill 27 and Senate Bill 671 are sitting in the Senate Finance Committee, according to the Library of Congress. House Resolution 935 is in the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.