Congress again ponders updating Social Security policy for non-eligible federal retirees

The Windfall Elimination Provision and Government Pension Offset have both been around for decades. They reduce or rule out Social Security benefits for some.

The Windfall Elimination Provision and Government Pension Offset have both been around for decades. They reduce or rule out Social Security benefits for some federal retirees. A bill to repeal them has been gaining unprecedented traction. For one view of this issue, Federal News Network’s Drew Friedman spoke with the staff vice president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, John Hatton on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview Transcript:  

John Hatton Windfall elimination provision and the government pension offset were put into law in the late 70s early 80s as part of a set of social security reforms to help at that time, improve the solvency of the Social Security trust funds. We’ve been opposed to them ever since. Both of those really reduce an individual Social Security benefit based on income they’ve earned outside the Social Security system. You know, they’ve paid taxes into Social Security, earned that Social Security. You know, in the case of WEP and simply because they’ve gone outside of that system and earned a pension separately, they are penalized. So there’s been efforts to repeal these provisions for some time. The biggest obstacle to progress is the cost, repealing both weapon GPO, is close to $150 billion. And when you have solvency issues again with Social Security trust Fund, that’s been the real pediment. But, we’ve also NARFE and our allies have been successful convincing members of Congress that this is a still real problem, that it’s an unfair provision. In the case of both of them. Government pension offset reduces spousal survivor benefits that some in some cases, people have, totally losing that survivor benefit. So, you know, for for the people affected, it feels like their Social Security benefits are being taken away, the ones that have rightfully earned. We have more than 300 co-sponsors in the House and more than 50 in the Senate. They’ve been around for a long time, and we keep on trying to get that repealed.

Drew Friedman I really do think it says something to have that much consensus, especially in the House, to have, you know, more than 300 co-sponsors is a really huge deal. And I know there was a hearing just this week on WEP and GPO in the House Ways and Means Committee. Can you talk a little bit about what led up to that point, and what might still be ahead for how this bill might move through Congress?

John Hatton There was a field hearing in Louisiana, the week of Thanksgiving as well, that really focused on those impacted. In that case, they really focused on the police officers and the firefighters and the teachers affected because it affects state and local government employees and in particular states that have similar systems to the older federal system, the civil service retirement system. Those are the people who are affected by WEP and GPO on the federal side. So they’ve kind of heard from the individuals, the fact that they’re going to take a look at kind of think tank witnesses in this next hearing and kind of take a look at a little bit deeper into the policy justifications for these and what the options may be to reform or repeal them. So it’s a good sign that we’ve had two hearings on this issue. That’s not been the case before last Congress. A motion to put this repeal bill on the consensus calendar was filed that forced basically forced the House Ways and Means Committee to have a markup on the bill. But they advanced it with that recommendation. So they basically said, we don’t want this getting a vote, but we’re going to take this off the consensus calendar to avoid a floor. So we’ve kind of started this Congress off at a faster pace, than where we were at the last Congress. And last Congress, we ended up with 305 co-sponsors. And now, we’re over 310. So the progress has been building over the last two Congresses, I think, particularly comparative to where it was, you know, over the previous decade. The two hearings are good news. The next step beyond that would be to try to push for a markup of this bill or some type of bill to address these issues. So the hope is that these two hearings are signaling that the committee’s taking this issue more seriously than it has in the past. And, you know, the hope is that this would be a precursor to some additional action on the bill that’s not guaranteed, that’s not set, certainly up for debate. And, a lot of uncertainty around that. But that’s what we’re pushing for is that markup of a bill on this issue.

Drew Friedman And do you have any sense of if that was going to happen, if there was going to be further traction, so to speak, on the bill? What would be the timeline for that?

John Hatton That’s hard to say, but you would hope it would be probably by the end of July. Just because we’re running in an election year. And the closer we get to the election, the less likely it is that something will happen. So the idea would be get that markup not just to make progress for next Congress, but to also try to make progress to get this bill to the floor after the markup passed the House and then start working on the Senate as well. So I think by July would be the hope. But we don’t know. And we’ll take we’ll take by the end of the year to if that could happen.

Drew Friedman Right. Yeah. I guess we’ll just have to see how that all plays out and, and just see, over the next couple of months, what sort of developments there are. But John, I also wanted to switch gears here a little bit because there’s another topic that’s been really front and center of the news for federal employees in the federal workforce. There was a new final rule from the Office of Personnel Management that’s trying to, in their words, uphold civil service protections and merit system principles. You know, we know that this is a response to schedule F, the executive order from the Trump administration to try to prevent its resurrection, potentially in a future administration. So, John, can you explain how that final rule attempts to accomplish that?

John Hatton Sure. So the final rule really shores up the regulatory regime supporting the merit based civil service. There is statutory law that puts in place certain protections. But the problem was schedule has kind of found a loophole in that statutory law by creating this new excepted service schedule. So this tries to shore up the regulatory regime supporting that as well, and fill in the gaps that schedule us to try to exploit. It does so by saying that civil servants are going to retain the rights they’ve had in whatever position they were in. So if the people are hired in and are in a competitive service position, you can’t just be moved out of that position and lose those rights. So if somebody wanted to come along with schedule F again and these regulations were in place, and move somebody from that competitive service position into schedule F, there would be rights to appeal that position and, appeal that, the change in position and, and say that these individuals still have those rights, those can’t be involuntarily taken away. So it really says so you can try to move the schedule F, but, you’re not going to take away those rights that protect that merit based civil service, provide some other regulatory requirements in terms of creating, you know, different schedules that would impact the merit based system principles, clarifies that confidential, you know, policymaking positions are non career political positions. So there is a role in the federal government for people that are making policy determining policy. Those are political jobs. Not they’re not career jobs. And trying to shore up what has consistently been the case. So. Does this prevent any prospect of a schedule up in the future? No. These regulations can be changed by a future administration, but they would have to go through a notice and comment rulemaking. And so right now, if these are in place, if they are these are not challenged. And if another administration, you know, before another administration can go ahead and and try to change them, they do provide protections to individuals, protections of that merit based system. So I think it’s a really strong and important step in the right direction.

Drew Friedman Yeah. No, I and John, I think you make an important point as well that this is one step and it is a very solid step from the Biden administration in terms of trying to protect some of those work force principles or merit system principles. But are there other efforts? I know there was a bill on Capitol Hill kind of related to the same thing. Do you think there’s other ways, if for advocates or those, you know, oppose this guide, you will have to try to make something even more permanent happen in the future?

John Hatton Yes. I think a change in statutory law would certainly shore up this regime even further to prevent, you know, a future administration from coming in and, you know, overt, you know, proposing a new rule to change these regulations in under, you know, basically reversing them. So the saving our Civil Service Act. Secondly, Bill, in the House, Kaine bill in the Senate is something that supported other groups, government groups, employee groups, you name it, that support this effort. You know, support that bill as well. That has you know, there’s been efforts to include that in the National Defense Authorization Act, the amendments that has not received bipartisan support as of yet. Even if there are people on the Republican side of the aisle that kind of understand the arguments behind and kind of thinks that schedule likely goes too far. They haven’t been willing to kind of sign on to these bills yet. So, you know, you’re not going to get something passed through Congress without bipartisan support, especially with the current make up the Congress.

Tom Temin John Hatton, a staff vice president of the National Active and Retired Federal Employees Association, NARFE, speaking with Federal News Network’s Drew Friedman. There’s lots more to the interview. Find it in its entirety at Federal News Search your federal life.

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