Backtrack railroad bailout

It might as well have been a bullet train for the speed with which it gained House approval. Now what amounts to a promise of a taxpayer bailout for the federally-managed railroad pension fund is before the Senate, which should derail this misguided plan and devise a more comprehensive solution to the fund’s looming insolvency.

The pension fund is a pay-as-you-go program, with current workers paying for the retirement of the generation before them. But with the railroad industry on the decline, program beneficiaries outnumber workers paying into the system about 3-1. To keep the fund from heading down the road Social Security paved, railroads and unions collaborated to produce the bill currently speeding through Congress. Its provisions are attractive for worker and manager alike: reduce the retirement age from 62 to 60, provide for faster employee vesting, remove the benefit cap, lower employer payroll taxes and allow railroads to reduce headcount without messy layoffs.

To keep the books balanced, the bill also proposes moving $15 billion of the fund’s $20 billion out of government bonds and into the stock market. The plan’s supporters say this will allow the pension fund to make more money by doing what private pension funds already do.

But the railroad pension fund is not private. Its revenue shortfalls will be covered by all taxpayers, not just plan participants. Additionally, unlike individual retirement investments, which are designed to pay off 20 or 30 years down the line and can be allowed to weather market drops, the railroad pension fund must be able to pay continuously as workers retire. And while a market upswing might compensate the fund for lean months, it cannot repay a taxpayer bailout.

Handing the government another $15 billion to selectively invest in favored funds or corporations would also expand further governmental ability to pressure companies into complying with sketchy regulations, securing jobs for bureaucrats or providing other political favors. Too many administrators already habitually trade favors in exchange for the ability to move between government and private business. A shaky pension fund on which hard-working Americans depend should not become another pawn in that game.

The railroad pension fund’s flirtation with insolvency requires a comprehensive solution, a smaller-scale version of what is needed to confront Social Security’s impending inability to pay its bills. While stock market investments might be a useful component of that plan, rushing three-quarters of the pension fund into the market – especially during a continuing recession – on the basis of political appeal and a well-orchestrated lobbying campaign is irresponsible. Congress should put the pension fund back on track, but it should do so without jeopardizing employees’ retirement or putting taxpayers on the hook for yet another industry’s bad planning.