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Bipartisan consensus elusive on government retirees’ benefits

Movement on long-standing bipartisan campaign to boost Social Security payouts seen as possible in 2024

From left, Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., speaker-designate, and Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., are seen on the House floor before Johnson was elected speaker on Oct. 25.
From left, Speaker Pro Tempore Patrick T. McHenry, R-N.C., Rep. Mike Johnson, R-La., speaker-designate, and Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., are seen on the House floor before Johnson was elected speaker on Oct. 25. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

​There are renewed signs of life for congressional efforts to overhaul a pair of much-maligned Social Security policies that cut some public workers’ retirement benefits. But in a year of tumult in the House, there’s still a long way to go.

The House Ways and Means Committee held its first hearing in years on the two provisions, dubbed the windfall elimination provision and government pension offset, last week in Louisiana during what was supposed to be a sleepy Thanksgiving recess week.

Backers are hopeful the panel will take up bills to get rid of the laws as a next step in 2024, according to an aide, when some of the most vocal opponents may have their last chance.

Lawmakers enacted the so-called WEP and GPO provisions initially in the late 1970s and early 1980s to make sure that public employees like state government workers, firefighters, police and teachers don’t get unfairly high Social Security payouts.

The intent was to prevent these public sector employees from “double dipping” — receiving both their own government pensions as well as full Social Security benefits, even though they didn’t fully pay into the Social Security system via payroll taxes during their careers due to their time working as government officials. 

But now a majority of lawmakers are on board with overturning the laws, which opponents say dock benefits too severely, make it harder for public workers to retire comfortably and create a disincentive to entering public service.

The dynamics around the issue in Washington are ever-evolving but subject to a perpetual roadblock. While many House members want to strike the provisions and grant higher payouts for public workers, Ways and Means members and leadership tend to step in with a dose of reality.

Repealing WEP and GPO would be costly and possibly grant unfairly high benefits to some retirees, they say, contending that a new formula is needed to avoid draining Social Security’s retiree trust fund even sooner as it faces insolvency in the coming decade. Ways and Means has yet to find bipartisan agreement on exactly how to do that.

Louisiana listening session

Last Monday’s Social Security Subcommittee field hearing put that divide on display, along with new factors in the yearslong campaign against the two benefit-docking provisions.

Ways and Means Chairman Jason Smith, R-Mo., said he plans to keep working toward a fix, saying both provisions have done a disservice to people who work for their communities. He and other panel members referred to the Louisiana hearing as only a first step in their efforts.

“At the core of this issue is fairness,” he said. “Congress must find a bipartisan way to provide public servants with the fair treatment that they deserve.”

The gathering was at a fire station in Rep. Garret Graves’ district, a boon for the Louisiana Republican who’s recently seen his role within the GOP conference change after former Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s ouster.

Graves was a close McCarthy ally leading critical negotiations for the California Republican and leading meetings of the Elected Leadership Committee, a group of advisers. Newly elected Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., booted Graves from that role, Politico reported.

Graves said at the hearing that it’s time “to push the gas even harder” to press for GPO and WEP repeal, as his bipartisan bill would do. It has 300 co-sponsors, including 201 Democrats and 99 Republicans.

That’s enough to force a vote on the House floor by placing a bill on the “consensus calendar,” a step that Graves has so far chosen not to take. Ways and Means has tools to block that process, as it did last year, so Graves has instead been working with Smith — who like Graves is close to McCarthy — and the committee while using the widely-backed bill to boost that momentum.

But leaders of the effort could face more political pressure to make a stand over the next year. Redistricting in Louisiana could result in a tougher reelection race for Graves, and the lead Democratic co-sponsor, Rep. Abigail Spanberger of Virginia, is running for governor.

“We urge the committee to build upon this current momentum and take the final steps necessary to send our legislation to the U.S. House floor for a vote,” Graves and Spanberger said in a joint statement after the hearing. “Because Virginians, Louisianians, and Americans across the country who paid into Social Security deserve their full retirement benefits — just like everyone else.”

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., is seen in the Capitol on Jan. 3 (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The hearing also underscored the Louisiana delegation’s loud voice on the issue. Johnson and Majority Leader Steve Scalise, both Louisianans, have consistently co-sponsored Graves’ bill, though they face the same cost issues that have plagued past efforts.

Last Monday, Rep. Clay Higgins, R-La., made the strongest promises on WEP and GPO to a panel of current or retired Louisiana public workers representing police, firefighters, teachers and state employees, promising a bill would pass by the end of next year.

“My colleagues up here and I, we’re tired of hearing about excuses from previous Congresses, we’re tired of politics, we’re tired of hearing how much this is going to cost,” Higgins said. “Because here’s a real simple fact, Mr. Chairman, I don’t care how much it costs — it’s not our money. This money belongs to the people that have earned it.”

Cost concerns

But that would be an expensive move at a time when the House GOP’s right flank is agitating for more aggressive spending cuts. The Congressional Budget Office estimated last year that striking WEP and GPO without replacements would cost $183 billion over a decade and make Social Security unable to fully fund benefits about six months sooner.

Budget Chairman Jodey C. Arrington, R-Texas, is sponsoring the lead GOP bill to overhaul the WEP by replacing it with a new formula based on how much of a career the beneficiary spent working in Social Security-covered jobs. He took over the measure from retired former Ways and Means top Republican Kevin Brady of Texas, and expanded it some to allow more potential recipients to take whichever formula offers a higher payout in benefits.

Even with Ways and Means taking up the issue and a speaker who’s been an ally in the past, the panel’s top Democrat said the cost remains a critical hangup.

“If this was easy, it would’ve been done,” Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., said.

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