NU Online News Service, Sept. 16, 6:14 p.m. – House Republicans are still trying to ward off efforts by Senate Democrats to create an Office of Pension Participant Advocacy.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has included a provision that could create the office in S. 2766, the appropriations bill for the Labor, Education and Health and Human Services departments. The bill would shift $3 million from an existing Labor Department unit, the Pension and Welfare Benefits Administration, to the new pension participant advocacy office.

The new office “would serve as a voice for employees and retirees within the federal government,” Karen Ferguson, director of the Pension Rights Center, Washington, testified at a recent hearing of the House Subcommittee on Employer-Employee Relations, according to a written version of her remarks.

The most important function of the office “would be to identify gaps in the laws, develop reform recommendations, and serve as an advocate for current and prospective pensioners before Congress and the other government agencies,” Ferguson said.

The new office could help make up for the fact that Congress has split responsibility for enforcement of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act between the Labor Department and the U.S. Treasury Department, and that the Treasury Department seems to be more interested in maximizing tax revenue than in protecting pension plan participants, Ferguson said.

But Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Richardson, Texas, the chairman of the Employer-Employee Relations subcommittee, said forming the new office would be a waste of $3 million.

The PWBA’s “work is vital to workers, assisting them in getting the information needed to protect their benefit rights,” Johnson said. “I can not believe the United States Senate has proposed cutting the budget for pension cops on the beat at this time. That’s just wrong.”

Ann Combs, an assistant secretary at the Labor Department, also spoke at the hearing. She emphasized the magnitude of the PWBA’s investigation efforts.

In fiscal year 2003, the PWBA will spend $93 million or 79% of its $120 million budget, on enforcement, and 502 of its 861 staff people are investigators, Combs said.

Another 108 PWBA employees are “benefit advisors” who provide informal help with resolving benefit disputes, Combs said.

The PWBA opened 4,762 civil cases in 2001, closed 2,724 civil cases “with results,” and referred 109 cases to the Labor Department Solicitors Office for formal litigation, Combs added.

Combs pointed out that the PWBA also obtained 87 criminal indictments in 2001 and won 49 convictions and guilty pleas.

The creation of a new advocacy office separate from the PWBA “would harm participants by siphoning off resources that are needed to support enforcement efforts and assistance and outreach services to participants and beneficiaries,” Combs testified. “This proposal would duplicate services already being provided by the agency, but without the existing experience and expertise in providing participant and beneficiary assistance that PWBA has developed over the years. This legislation would hamper PWBA’s existing enforcement structure by separating our most effective source of investigations from the field office structure. Further, there would be confusion as to whom participants should contact for assistance and information.”

More information about the hearing is available on the Web at http://edworkforce.house.gov/hearings/107th/eer/pwbaig91002/wl91002.htm