InsideNOVA: Congresswoman looks to nix Social Security provisions

INSIDENOVA, BEN PETERS

Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger is looking to gin up support for her proposal to eliminate federal provisions she says are unfairly diminishing retirement funds for government workers.

More than 6,100 current and former public employees have responded to the congresswoman’s non-scientific survey soliciting input on the impact certain Social Security rules have on public workers’ retirement benefits.

The survey, launched April 4, was conducted as part of Spanberger’s efforts to roll back the Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP) formula and Government Pension Offset (GPO) rule.

In January, Spanberger, of Virginia’s 7th District, and Louisiana Republican Rep. Garrett Graves reintroduced the Social Security Fairness Act to eliminate the WEP and GPO. Since reintroduction, the legislation has garnered more than 200 cosponsors across bipartisan lines. An earlier version of the bill, which Spanberger co-sponsored in 2021, ultimately died.

Respondents to Spanberger’s survey came from federal employees, police officers, firefighters, educators and other public workers, the congresswoman said in a news release.

“Just last night on a telephone town hall, I heard directly from a retired police officer who is frustrated by the WEP and GPO,” Spanberger said in a statement to InsideNoVa last week. “Unfortunately, his story mirrors the stories of thousands of Virginians — as well as millions of retired public servants across the country.”

What are the WEP, GPO?

According to the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), the WEP is a formula that can reduce the size of government workers’ Social Security retirement or disability benefits if they receive a pension from a job in which they did not pay Social Security taxes.

Its purpose is to remove an unintended advantage, or “windfall,” that public workers would otherwise receive as a result of the interaction between the regular Social Security benefit formula and the workers’ relatively short careers in Social Security–covered employment, according to a 2023 report from the Congressional Research Service. About 3% of all Social Security beneficiaries – roughly 2 million people – are affected by the WEP.

The GPO reduces public employees’ spousal benefits if their pension is from a “non-covered” government job in which the federal taxes that largely fund Social Security were not withheld from their paycheck, according to AARP. It will also reduce survivor benefits employees collect on the work record of a deceased spouse if they also have a non-covered pension.

The program is intended to benefit the spouses and widows of insured workers since immediate family members are presumed to be dependent on them for their financial support and are presumed to be in need of benefits when the family experiences a loss of income due to the worker’s retirement, disability or death, a 2023 report from the Congressional Research Service said. As of December 2022, the rule affected about 1% of all Social Security beneficiaries, or roughly 735,000 people. Of those directly affected, more than half were spouses and nearly half were widows.

‘Righting this wrong’

Speaking about the survey, Spanberger said she’s “even received responses from retired U.S. Capitol Police officers in our region who have been denied the benefits they earned and paid into throughout their careers.”

“These personal stories will help me explain the urgency of the situation to my colleagues on Capitol Hill, persuade leadership to bring our bipartisan legislation up for a vote, and move us closer towards righting this wrong,” the congresswoman said.

The news release from her office featured a number of survey responses from Northern Virginia residents who felt the provisions were negatively affecting their retirement savings.

A Prince William County resident identified only as Tom said: “I am a retired federal employee. I also have over 30 years of employment in the private sector during which I paid into social security like all others in the private sector. However, I am now retired and my social security benefits are reduced by 50%. Since I paid into social security under the same ‘rules’ as everyone, shouldn’t I also receive benefits under the same rules? My wife and I are in our mid 70s and social security is a major component of our income.”

Another Prince William resident, Ken, said, “I paid Social Security (FICA) tax on 16 years of earnings in the commercial sector and the U.S. Army, but my monthly Social Security benefit has been cut by 50% by the WEP penalty due to my CSRS retirement.”

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