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National Issues Conference: Contractors team up to engage Congress on tough issues

Jun 13, 2017

DSC_4208SMACNA contractors made a difference for the industry at the recent CEA National Issues Conference in Washington, D.C. More than 194 specialty contractors joined forces with four construction associations at the Georgetown Marriott and law offices of Hogan Lovells, where they learned about the current political climate on pension reform, health care, and regulatory issues.

More than 70 SMACNA members and association executives attended and then engaged with their lawmakers in more than 150 visits on Capitol Hill.

On the first day, contractors discussed such regulatory issues as pension reform and the impact of health-care changes. (See related article “Pension experts” on page 2.)

Pension reform—more than one solution

“This is about stabilizing the system going forward,” noted Cary Franklin, managing consultant and actuary, Horizon Actuarial Services, of pension reform.

Congress did not deal with the multiemployer plans issue during the last Congress and it is imperative SMACNA contractors keep the issue in play and that is why it was on the conference agenda again this year.

If we can’t get affected industries working together, noted Joshua Shapiro, senior actuarial advisor, Groom Law Group, “at one point Congress is going to put a number out there and that’s that.”

Variable annuity plans: A good alternative

“There are alternatives under current law that can accomplish a lot of the same things as composite plans—variable annuity plans,” Mr. Shapiro explained. “The idea is simply that benefit levels in the past and future are tied to the performance of your plan’s assets. You can adjust benefits based on what the level of return can provide and, each year, if interest is different, you can adjust the benefits up or down, depending. The variable annuity model should be on the forefront of people’s minds as we go forward in the future.”

“The more plans that can heal themselves with MPRA (Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014), that reduces the PBGC’s (Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation) shortfall,” Mr. Shapiro added. “One of the key things is start early. It’s a long process. The sooner you can take action the less action you have to take.”

On the second day, contractors discussed such public policy issues as infrastructure and health care with members of Congress, pension experts, and union general presidents.

Members of Congress shared their views

DSC_6728“There are 173,000 people in West Virginia that have never had health care. They’re getting health care for the first time,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), of the Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act. “They don’t care how they got it. They don’t know how they got it. But I guarantee they’ll know who took it away from them.”

Regarding infrastructure, a minimum of one trillion dollars is needed, Sen. Manchin added. “We need bridges, roads, waterways—everything needs to be repaired.” The conference Hill visits included discussions about the importance of enactment of an infrastructure package increasing investment in all aspects of the nation’s infrastructure.

DSC_6624Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-8th-Pa.) noted how his experience as a FBI agent fighting political corruption has given him a unique perspective in Congress. “In the FBI, what I saw was that there was a direct link between the number of years in office and corruption,” he said. “The system is broken.”

In addition, politicians should spend time getting to know each other, he said, of the animosity in Congress. “President Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill disagreed on the Hill, but had a drink after and were friends. We used to respect each other as people. It’s shocking that it doesn’t exist anymore.”

Rep, Fitzpatrick expressed his support for CEA positions on infrastructure, prevailing wage, and project labor agreements.

DSC_7237Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kansas) sounded a note of pragmatism on disagreements among politicians on the Hill. “These are not the worst of times,” he said, recounting his experiences when buildings in Washington burned and tear gas filled the streets in the 1960s. “It was a very troubled time.”

“We’ve had tough times before,” he said. “You do have a Congress that wants to get something done. That means jobs. That means growth. That is what they are all about. We have to figure out how to do it in broad strokes and do things in terms of economic growth for the country.”

“We’re going to continue in this period of the country being divided for the next couple of years, until the midterm elections,” said Rep. Chris Collins (R-27th-N.Y.). “We are going to get no bipartisan help, with zero Democratic votes on pension, on health care, so we are going to have to do it ourselves.”

SMART union is at the table

DSC_7050SMART General President Joseph Sellers Jr. said that the union has been very active in talking about union construction, as well as health care, pension reform, and infrastructure projects, with the new Congress. “We have been going out there and sharing that message. We are making sure they know the concerns of our industry and the concerns of those working on the jobsite every day.”

“We want to roll up our sleeves and be part of the ongoing process,” he added. “If we are not at the table then our voices will not be heard. How can we put union members back to work?”

The conference was sponsored by the Construction Employers of America (CEA). Save the date for next year’s conference, taking place May 8 to May 10, 2018. You can also make a

difference in Washington, D.C. Take action on the latest legislation affecting the industry on SMACNA’s Advocacy webpage.