Several retired federal employees feel they are being unfairly denied benefits, due to the Social Security provisions known as the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) and Government Pension Offset (GPO). We know how those retirees feel, thanks to a recent survey conducted by the office of Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.), who plans to use the survey results to push through legislation that would get rid of the WEP and GPO. To find out how, The Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke with the congresswoman last week.
Abigail Spanberger So the government pension offset and the windfall elimination provisions are two unfair provisions that negatively impact retirees who have spent their professional lives devoted to service. They’re as federal employees or as public servants across the country, particularly impacted are police officers, teachers, firefighters. And really, there is a problem within current law, which is what we seek to change, that impacts negatively the Social Security payments that retirees receive: the Windfall Elimination Provision and the Government Pension Offset provision. These are two provisions that basically reduce substantially the amount of Social Security that retirees receive based on the pensions that they might have earned through their service, again, as public servants. And what our legislation would do would just eliminate what is, in fact, I think, a problem in the law that allows for these retirees to not receive the full amount of the Social Security that they have paid into the system and that they have earned. And so our legislation is pretty straightforward. It removes both of these provisions that so negatively and disproportionately impact public servant retirees and allows them to collect the Social Security that they’ve earned through their working careers.
Eric White Before we get into your legislation — and you’re referencing the Social Security Fairness Act that you reintroduced early in January — how did we get to this point? And was it just sort of an oversight or were there good intentions when both provisions were put in or what happened there?
Abigail Spanberger So the reality is, is that I think at one point in time, it probably made sense to somebody somewhere that if you’re a retiree retiring with a pension, that’s your retirement plan. And some lawmakers somewhere felt comfortable having that impact the Social Security payments that individuals are receiving. But for so many teachers or police officers who spend their career serving our communities and then might work elsewhere after retiring — certainly so many police officers who retire relatively young continue on with a second career — and they pay into Social Security and they should be able to receive the social funds for which they’re eligible that they paid into the system. So presumably at some point in time it made sense for some lawmakers. It certainly has never made sense to me. But this is an issue that I’ve been focused on since I first, frankly, started campaigning. It’s something that was brought to me by constituents in the Seventh District. We are a district with many, many federal retirees who are impacted by this, by these two unfair provisions, as well as retired police officers. Notably the Capitol police officers are impacted by this, in their personal capacity, have done tremendous advocacy, making sure that lawmakers understand that the folks protecting them every day are negatively impacted by this, by this law. And so it’s a straightforward change. It’s elimination of these two unfair provisions. And it’s just making sure that the people who paid into Social Security for work that they did, money that’s supposed to be there in their retirement, is. And it’s also ensuring that a widow or a widower losing a spouse as a federal employee or a public servant impacted by these provisions, doesn’t see the the support meant to help them in their retirement as a surviving spouse, that it is also not negatively impacted because the stories are really tragic. The people have committed themselves to a life of serving their community and serving their country. And ultimately nobody’s asking for any special treatment. Literally, it’s just the dollars that they paid into Social Security that, had they chosen a different career path, would be there available to them.
Eric White And speaking of those stories, in an effort to showcase them, your office recently launched a survey asking for respondents from inside and outside of your district. And I’m just curious on how that idea came about and what you heard from the folks who these provisions do affect.
Abigail Spanberger So we do surveys fairly frequently on a whole soliciting not only the opinions of constituents, but the stories of constituents. And the response that we received related to the Government Pension Offset, related to the Windfall Elimination Provision and the impact that those provisions have had on constituents, the response is overwhelming. Thousands of respondents responding to my office telling their stories of how they’ve been impacted, what these unfair provisions have meant for them, and why they support the Social Security Fairness Act, which is the legislation that that I am leading with [Rep.] Garret Graves (R-La.). We are up to about 5,000 respondents so far, which is, again, we do surveys very frequently, and the number of responses we’ve had are absolutely astounding compared to past efforts to solicit information, feedback and stories.
Eric White And a little bit of history on this bill itself. And you’re reintroducing it this time around, and you have a lot of co-sponsors signing on what is necessarily — and I know that a lot of things go into what gets passed and what doesn’t — but what has sort of been the hold up, I guess, if there is that much support for it within Congress? Not only that, and by the people that it affects.
Abigail Spanberger Right now, we’re at 223 co-sponsors. When everybody’s there and voting, we need 218 to pass a piece of legislation. So we are already at the place where we know that this legislation would pass on the House floor if and when it’s brought to a vote. Last Congress, we got to more than 290 co-sponsors, which is an important threshold, because at 290 co-sponsors, we can actually force bills to the floor, force bills through committee. Unfortunately, we reached that point a little bit late, got pushed forward through committee, but we were unable to get a floor vote. I was very, very critical of the effort by Congress and certainly what I perceived to be an unwillingness within leadership to bring this incredibly important bill forward. And so I continue to work with my Republican co-leader, Graves, to ensure that we aggressively get this bill to 290 earlier so that leadership within the House has no no alternative action other than to bring this for a vote. And so we’re working currently to build out our co-sponsors list. And we’re already at passage level with 223 currently. We’re only a couple of months into the new Congress. And certainly there’s so many members, so Garret and I have been doing a lot of work, making sure that new members who were just elected understand this issue, know how it might impact their constituents and sign on to the legislation. So we’re pushing aggressively for it to come forward. It is legislation that impacts so many communities and frankly speaking, when people find out about it. And it’s very clear that these provisions just unfairly impacts retirees. People want to support it once they learn about it.
Eric White Yeah. Did you utilize these responses from the survey in order to maybe convince some people who maybe may have not been against it but just didn’t know about it? And to your other colleagues there on the Hill?
Abigail Spanberger We are starting to do that. Certainly since I was first running for Congress and some of those stories I have brought forward. Now, I have many, many more. And I noticed that some Capitol Police officers in their personal capacity have been doing some lobbying on Capitol Hill to make sure that members of Congress are aware of this issue and how it impacts them and others like them. But we also have quite a few retired Capitol Police officers among those who answered the survey. I think that’s an impactful element because, just as the Capitol police officers are impacted by this, so too, are so many federal retirees, retired teachers throughout the country, retired firefighters, retired police officers. And so the challenge is just making sure that members of Congress are aware, and that this is a pretty straightforward fix and that it really truly is just an issue of fairness.