Why a fight over coal miners could shut down the government
A fight over a spending-bill provision to prevent thousands of retired coal miners from losing their health benefits could shut down the federal government if lawmakers don’t reach an agreement Friday.
The issue’s been simmering all year as the United Mine Workers’ multiemployer health and pension plans verge on insolvency due to coal company bankruptcies and the 2007-08 financial crisis.
Coal country Democrats including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin (D.-W.Va.) have been pushing legislation since 2015 to shore up the United Mine Workers’ health and pension plans. But some Republicans have labeled the plan a bailout.
Now, there’s a more immediate crisis, as 12,500 retirees and their dependents from bankrupt Patriot Coal face losing their benefits on Dec. 31. Another 3,600 from a separate plan will also be cut off by Jan. 1. The continuing resolution that Congress is considering would fund health benefits for them through April 28. But Manchin and other coal country Democrats say they’ll oppose the must-pass spending bill unless it contains a longer extension of the benefits.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that he “insisted” that the CR include the UMW provision to ensure that retired miners “don’t lose their health benefits at the end of the year.” But according to a preliminary Congressional Budget Office score , the money won’t come from Treasury; rather, it will come from shifting funds from the retirees’ multiemployer health plan.
It isn’t entirely clear that Congress is acting within its powers. In a statement, trustees to the multiemployer health plan said Congress “does not … have the authority to appropriate private funds from one group of retirees to benefit a different population” and that “to do so would violate the due process rights of adversely affected retirees and would constitute an unconstitutional taking in violation of the Fifth Amendment.”
There could be bigger problems down the line. UMWA President Cecil Roberts warned the Senate Finance Committee earlier this year some actuaries predict the union’s multiemployer pension plan would go insolvent by 2020. That would put the plan at the doorstep of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation, the federal government’s pension insurer. But the PBGC’s multiemployer pension program is also projected to go insolvent by the end of 2025.
Manchin has proposed bipartisan legislation to shore up the Mine Workers’ health and pension plans using money from the Abandoned Mine Reclamation Fund and the U.S. Treasury. Money from these two sources is already used to pay for some retiree health benefits but not for the benefits of so-called orphan retirees, or retirees who worked for coal companies that went bankrupt. None of the money may be used to pay for pension benefits, under current law.
Opponents to the bill say it’s a government bailout and sets a precedent for other financially troubled multiemployer pension plans. But proponents argue that the money to pay for the benefits is already set aside for related purposes and that spending it would not increase the federal deficit.
Lawmakers tried last year to attach the legislation to the omnibus spending bill. But McConnell reportedly blocked that effort and said the bill needed to go through regular order.
The Senate Finance Committee approved Manchin’s bill in September.
Proponents, including Sens. Manchin, Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), say the continuing resolution is not enough.
In a statement upon the CR’s release, Capito said that she was “disappointed that the full Miners Protection Act … was not included in the continuing resolution.” She added that “while the short-term, four-month patch will prevent our miners from losing their health care benefits in just a few weeks, we have more work to do.”