PRESIDENT CLINTON has hoodwinked Americans again. He is recovering the revenues lost to tariff reduction in his GATT "free trade" legislation by taking the money out of our private pensions. The benefit to Americans of lower import prices will be offset by shriveled pension nest eggs.
True to form, Clinton didn't tell us this. He just emphasized the increased spending power Americans would have from cheaper imports.The pension cutbacks hidden in the GATT law don't affect every retiree equally, but many will lose tens of thousands of dollars in pension benefits and some could lose as much as $250,000. That's a lot to make back on cheaper import prices.
Provisions in the GATT law reduce the maximum amounts employees can contribute to their pension plans over the rest of their working lives. Other provisions reduce the amount a retiree can receive if he elects to take a lump sum payout in place of monthly payments based on life expectancy.
According to pension experts, a 65-year-old employee could take a 7 percent hit under the GATT pension reduction law. A 55-year-old could face a 25 percent reduction, and a 45-year-old would be hurt even more.
The amounts that we sock away in our pension plans are not reported as taxable income. By reducing the amounts that we can save for retirement, GATT increases our taxable income. Thus, money that would have been saved for retirement is paid instead to the government in income taxes.
During the past year I reported in various columns how Clinton, desperate for money, had set his sights on our pensions. With his schemes exposed, he went behind everyone's back and grabbed our pensions through provisions buried in GATT.
Since GATT was on a "fast track," the pension provisions escaped scrutiny. When I asked Republicans in Congress why they had permitted a raid on our pensions in the name of free trade, they were aghast to learn what they had voted for.
This should be a lesson for them and for us. Bipartisanship and cooperation with Clinton are guaranteed ways to get taken for a ride. Republicans are not going to do any better for us than Democrats have, unless they read the fine print before they vote.
GATT was marketed to the American public in highly simplified and dishonest ways: It was tariff reduction and job creation vs. protection and high prices; it was moving forward vs. gridlock. Swept up in an "event," the media failed again. The pension reductions weren't even discovered until after the bill had become law.
The new Republican Congress in January can honestly say it was deceived by the Clinton administration and repeal the pension cutbacks in the GATT law.
Free traders have something to learn from all this, too. When a principled argument for free trade becomes enmeshed in extraneous issues, such as new international bureaucracies that might impair our sovereignty and reductions in our retirement benefits, it is time to clear the decks and start all over. The conservative cheerleaders for free trade apparently had no idea that they were leading the charge for higher taxes and a cutback in pension benefits.