Miners plead for pension rescue

Miners plead for pension rescue
© Getty Images

Retired coal miners and their congressional allies are shifting into overdrive in their push for Congress to pass legislation shoring up their retirement benefits.

Coal-state lawmakers say their legislation, the Miners Protection Act, could get a Senate committee vote next week, but they’re keeping up the pressure on leadership and the Finance Committee.

ADVERTISEMENT
Thousands of miners are coming to the Capitol on Thursday to lobby lawmakers on the bill. They say the federal government needs to honor a promise, made decades ago, to provide for the pension and healthcare benefits of retired miners.

At issue is the troubled pension plan managed by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), which is expected to slide into insolvency within months unless Congress provides a bailout.

“This is something that’s desperately needed, and it has bipartisan support. And you wonder, if this legislation can’t pass, what can pass in the United States Congress?” said Cecil Roberts, the UMWA’s president.

“There are a number of reasons to do this, the main one being, of course, that people were promised this and the government should keep its promise.”

Roberts has been working on the legislation for the past four years with coal-state lawmakers like Sens. Joe ManchinJoseph (Joe) ManchinTrump rips Dems a day ahead of key White House meeting Senate panel moves forward with bill to roll back Dodd-Frank Wealthy outsiders threaten to shake up GOP Senate primaries MORE (D-W.Va.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownThe Hill's 12:30 Report Avalanche of Democratic senators say Franken should resign Overnight Regulation: Feds push to clarify regs on bump stocks | Interior wants Trump to shrink two more monuments | Navajo Nation sues over monument rollback | FCC won't delay net neutrality vote | Senate panel approves bill easing Dodd-Frank rules MORE (D-Ohio) and Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Overnight Finance: House approves motion to go to tax conference — with drama | GOP leaders to consider Dec. 30 spending bill | Justices skeptical of ban on sports betting | Mulvaney won't fire official who sued him How four GOP senators guided a tax-bill victory behind the scenes MORE (R-Ohio) and Rep. David McKinleyDavid Bennett McKinleyHouse rejects Democrat's resolution to impeach Trump Lawmakers slam DOE’s proposal to help coal, nuclear power Lawmakers try again on miners’ pension bill MORE (D-W.Va.).

“This is a contract,” Manchin said Wednesday at a National Press Club event, referring to the 1946 federal agreement that he and allies of the miners say makes the government responsible for miners’ retirement.

“This is basically an agreement by the federal government and the United Mine Workers of America that we’re fulfilling to the people who gave us the country that we have.”

Supporters of the bill are focusing their energy on the Senate. McKinley said, “We can pass it out of the House tomorrow,” but only if the Senate is on board.

The legislation would move money from the Abandoned Mine Lands fund to the pension plan. That fund was set up to clean up mines that companies abandon, and much of the money has gone unused.

The UMWA plan was funded to about 94 percent of its
obligations as recently as 2008, but the crash of the coal industry has decimated it.

“Bad management and competition from gas have forced four of the five biggest coal companies in the United States to declare bankruptcy, and the ability of coal miners to receive their pensions and healthcare benefits is dependent on a healthy coal industry,” said Patrick McGinley, a professor at the West Virginia University College of Law.

“So with these enormous bankruptcies and the shedding of bankrupt coal companies’ liabilities through the reorganization process, there’s simply no money left to support the agreement that both the federal government and coal companies made.”

While the Miners Protection Act has bipartisan support, it faces opposition from some conservatives who fear that Congress will soon be expected to bail out more troubled pension plans.

Rachel Greszler, an analyst at Heritage Foundation, said the federal government never made the promise to miners that supporters of the bill claim.

“This is not about whether you support coal miners or not, or if you support a union or not,” she said. “It’s about the precedent you set. And if you do this because they provided a service to the country, what about every other worker who provided a service to the country?”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellGOP strategist donates to Alabama Democrat McConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Brent Budowsky: A plea to Alabama voters MORE (R-Ky.), an outspoken advocate for coal, reportedly removed the pension bill from last year’s omnibus spending package at the last minute. His office has declined to comment on that report, from The Washington Post.

Brown said on the Senate floor earlier this year that McConnell’s opposition stemmed from the UMWA’s support for his election opponent, Alison Lundergan Grimes, in 2014.

Robert Steurer, a spokesman for McConnell, disputed Brown’s conclusion and said the majority leader “has been and remains committed to helping ensure the retirement security of our nation’s retirees, including coal miners,” but he believes “this issue deserves an open, transparent debate through regular order.”

Manchin and Sen. Shelley Moore CapitoShelley Wellons Moore CapitoSenate women: Rules on harassment must change Congress, here's a CO2-smart tax fix to protect, create jobs Women, Dems leading sexual harassment discussion in Congress: analysis MORE (R-W.Va.) said they believe McConnell would be willing to bring the pension bill up for a Senate vote if it goes through “regular order.” They said Finance Committee Chairman Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchMcConnell names Senate GOP tax conferees Ryan pledges 'entitlement reform' in 2018 Utah governor calls Bannon a 'bigot' after attacks on Romney MORE (R-Utah) has agreed to hold a vote on the bill next week.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) had been another coal-state holdout of the bill, but he came out in favor of it on Wednesday.

“While the Miners Protection Act is not perfect, I will vote in support of it in the Finance Committee later this month,” he said. “We must move this bipartisan measure forward quickly to solve an urgent problem.”

His election opponent this year, Democrat Katie McGinty, had been using the Miners Protection Act as a campaign wedge, holding a news conference Wednesday morning to criticize him for not supporting it.

“In Pat Toomey, we have a senator who will not stand up for his hardest-working constituents who, frankly, are being ripped off by their government right here and right now if this legislation doesn’t get passed and get passed right now,” she said.

Democrats see the race between Toomey and McGinty as a pickup opportunity that could shift control of the Senate.