"It seems like a win-win. Congress gets extra revenue that they can then use ... to say, 'Oh, we're paying for this additional highway spending.' And they also get to claim they're helping out these companies," said Romina Boccia, a senior policy analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation. "Meanwhile, the taxpayer is on the hook for a potential bailout of these private pensions down the road."
Both political parties embrace the tactic. It was used in 2010 to help forestall a cut in payments to Medicare doctors, which prompted Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., to warn that "these savings are likely to be more than offset by greater federal obligations that will appear outside the 10-year window we use to enforce the budget."
And in an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office released last week, the nonpartisan scorekeeper said the pension provision "would increase the amount of underfunding" in single-employer, defined benefit pension plans and "would probably cause some plans to be terminated more quickly."
"This is pretty bad, not only because it doesn't produce any real savings but it creates a risk of actually worsening our fiscal outlook if the reduced pension contributions result in more pension plans being underfunded and the government having to bail them out," said Ed Lorenzen, a senior analyst at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, which advocates for lower budget deficits.
"We're in a difficult position because the Republicans don't want to look at anything else," said Rep. Sander Levin, D-Mich. "And you can't let the highway fund go bust."
There is other budget fakery in the measure as well, including using $3.5 billion in so-called Customs user fees that won't arrive until 2024 to pay for spending now.
Asked Tuesday to respond to criticism of the pension idea, House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, gave only a halfhearted endorsement of the measure. Camp, the Ways and Means chairman, said it was too late to try anything else.
"Then why would the president be supporting our bill to fix the highway funding over the next year? Why would Democrats be supporting it in both the House and the Senate?" Boehner said. "Listen, these are difficult decisions in difficult times in an election year."
EDITORS NOTE _ An occasional look at how Washington works behind the scenes.