Windfall/Offset repeal, COLA reform: Now or ever?

While Mike Causey is away, please enjoy this column which originally published on May 24, 2022.

Some people think politicians talk a lot. And they do. According to the Senate Historical Office, the longest bill — most words, most pages — to ever pass Congress was the 5,593 page consolidated appropriations act. It also dealt with emergency funds and actions related to the coronavirus pandemic. It made the lengthy Affordable Care Act look like a condensed magazine article.

Nobody seems to know which bill or bills have been pending before Congress the longest. Are elected officials still reviewing legislation introduced by President Andrew Jackson’s allies? Or foes? Hard to know. But there are several contenders for the dubious honor. Two involve long-pending bills that keep getting introduced year after year. The other is brand new, and vitally important to FERS retirees, especially in times of high inflation, like now. So what are these old and new, highly emotional bills about?

If you asked many retired federal, state and local government workers or current feds, the best guess might be long-pending bills to repeal or modify the Government Pension Offset and Windfall Elimination Provision. Known as noble reform actions to some, or the Evil Twins to many more. Depending on which side you’re on, GPO and WEP either rightly save taxpayers a lot of money or, more commonly, they rob tens of thousands of retirees or their spouses from Social Security benefits they earned and paid for, before, during or after they left government service.

But if mention of GPO and WEP make you see red, you are probably aware that efforts to “reform” the reforms have been going on for decades. Probably longer than most Americans have been around. Groups representing retirees and workers have been working on repealing them for years. And because the number of affected retirees and spouses decreases each year, time is not on their side. Primarily because the complexity of the two bills and the fact that the number of people/voters impacted shrinks each year. If politicians wait long enough, some must be thinking, the problem will go away. Literally! Here’s what a lobbyist who worked for decades on GPO/WEP repeal said when we asked about the odds for change:

“You mean other than dead-on-arrival? Repeal of WEP and GPO have been issues for far too long and so “ain’t gonna happen” is best to describe them. I retired more than a decade ago, and those two bugaboos were on the legislative agenda for years before that. And the then-slim chances are even slimmer now that the population of those affected by WEP and GPO is shrinking as fewer and fewer non-Social Security-covered feds are retiring, if any. That greatly diminishes the constituency who might pressure members for passage.

And, unless and until Congress replaces the general Consumer Price Index with the reweighted CPI-E (CPI for the Elderly) for Social Security, it’s not going to happen for any CSRS of FERS retirees, if — and that’s a big if — then. Don’t hold your breath. And it certainly would never happen in a time of high inflation like now.

Here’s to the day when pigs fly.”

Sadly, some pro-reformers will see that as an attack on efforts to reform, not a realistic assessment from a been-there-done-that lobbyist who deals in facts.

The newest candidate for longest-running reform is the brand new Equal COLA Act. It would give current and future FERS retirees the same cost of living adjustment Social Security and CSRS retirees get each January. Under the current system they get less in times of high inflation. Over time that can eat into the purchasing power of their benefit.

Ken Thomas, president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees said the current “diet COLA’ for FERS is an “inherently unfair policy.” He said the equal COLA plan “would allow federal retirees to maintain the value of what they have rightfully earned through careers in public service.”

In a congressional election year, all things are possible. Also things tend to get busy fast, especially when you’ve got a pandemic, hot war and rising inflation to deal — or at least live — with. So is this another also-ran year for the Evil Twins. And maybe just the start of a long slog for the equal COLA plan for FERS folks?

Nearly Useless Factoid

By Abigail Russ

In 1993, a group of New York performance artists swapped the voice boxes of about 300 G.I. Joe and Barbie dolls and put them back in stores. A G.J. Joe would say ‘Will we ever have enough clothes?’ and a Barbie would say ‘Vengeance is mine!’ and ‘Eat lead, Cobra!’ A spokesperson for the group said they were making a statement about the way toys can encourage negative behavior in children, particularly given rising acts of violence and sexism.

Source: The New York Times

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