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Pension Bill Technical Corrections Likely to Live Up to Name

November 30, 2007
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With just weeks remaining before the biggest changes in pension funding rules in more than 30 years become a reality, it looks as if Congress will leave the law intact despite a change in leadership on Capitol Hill.

As is often the case with legislation as massive as the 1,099-page Pension Protection Act, the House and Senate are considering technical corrections to the bill, which was signed into law in August 2006 and goes into effect January 1.

The reform measure, designed to shore up the pension system, was dense, complicated, controversial and developed by Republican majorities that no longer exist. But Congress isn’t revisiting its substance.

“They have very deliberately tried to make this a pure technical correction,” says Kyle Brown, retirement counsel at Watson Wyatt in Washington. “For a pension bill, it was pretty contentious. I don’t think there’s a whole lot of interest in reopening those discussions.”

In fact, there’s not much momentum for bill modifications, which would tweak an underlying measure requiring companies to fund 100 percent of their pension liabilities, curb credit balances and limit the smoothing of interest rates.

As of early December, House and Senate committees had not voted on correction bills. They could still be attached to other tax legislation.

Another bill in the mix would have a much more profound impact. Written by Reps. Earl Pomeroy, D-North Dakota, and Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, it would delay implementation of reforms until January 1, 2009, to give the Departments of Treasury and Labor time to write regulations related to the bill.

So far, few of the final rules have been promulgated, leaving companies unsure how to meet the law’s requirements.

Pomeroy lashed out about the delay at a House hearing in late October on an unrelated issue—401(k) fees. The congressman took advantage of the opportunity to give government officials at the meeting a piece of his mind.

“Regulations haven’t been completed yet in critical areas,” Pomeroy said.

Some guidance exists, but not enough, according to Robert Davis, senior manager at Deloitte Consulting in Washington. He likens the situation to a jigsaw puzzle.

“We’ve got some of the border parts together and some the interior pieces, but the funding rules are the core, and we don’t have that yet,” he says. “It’s going to be hard for employers and their plan sponsors to fully comply.”

Although the business community asserted that pension reform would increase the costs and volatility of defined-benefit plans, they have been bracing for the changes for 16 months.

That contributes to the corporate lobby holding back its support for Pomeroy’s proposed delay.

“At this point, it might be more confusing than helpful,” Davis says. “The response has been more tepid than some might have thought.”

But Washington will have to be patient with companies that make mistakes in revising their pension plans, according to Brown.

“You have to hope that government agencies will respect that a good faith effort has been made with a lack of guidance,” he says.

—Mark Schoeff Jr.

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