That convinces Republicans that they can take on unions and win. It warns union leaders that they can lose. After 60 Minutes ran its segment on the "day of reckoning" (a Christie term) facing states that didn't cut back public employee pensions, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees blasted the "one-sided report" and union president Gerald W. McEntee argued pensions weren't such a big part of the problem. "The challenge can be met if state and local governments began contributing just 1.5 percent more of their budgets toward their pension funds in the years ahead."
Republicans intend to prove this wrong. In December, when it had no chance of passage but plenty of time to draw attention, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., introduced the Public Employee Pension Transparency Act. (It was co-sponsored by Paul Ryan and Darrell Issa, the incoming chairman of Budget and Oversight.) That legislation would require public employee pension plans to change the way they report their finances. The reason? Republicans believe that these pension data are based on rosy assumptions that aren't relevant anymore.
They also believe they called the pension funds' bluff. On Friday, Dec. 17, the president of the National Association of State Retirement Administrators e-mailed members to warn that the introduction of Nunes' bill marked "the beginning of a series of coordinated articles, reports and continuous media coverage falsely asserting state and local governments are a financial wreck and are not accurately accounting for the fiscal condition of their pension plans."
What could the pension fund people and the public sector unions be so worried about? Right-leaning Reuters columnist James Pethokoukis laid it out for them. If the states aren't bailed out, they're going to have to start cutting budgets. If there's total transparency about pension funds—and voters are already in the mood to shave the benefits and numbers of public workers—then that's where you can cut. Republicans might even be able to pass legislation that would allow states to declare bankruptcy, which would move the pension debate from politics to court, zapping all of the unions' leverage. "From the Republican perspective," wrote Pethokoukis, "the fiscal crisis on the state level provides a golden opportunity to defund a key Democratic interest group."
How would that work, exactly? House Republicans aren't talking about it yet. But Newt Gingrich, who those Republicans take seriously, laid it out clearly in a Nov. 11 speech to the Institute for Policy Innovation.
"I also hope the House Republicans are going to move a bill in the first month or so of their tenure to create a venue for state bankruptcy," said Gingrich, "so that states like California and New York and Illinois that think they're going to come to Washington for money can be told, you know, you need to sit down with all your government employee unions and look at their health plans and their pension plans and frankly if they don't want to change, our recommendation is you go into bankruptcy court and let the bankruptcy judge change it, and I would make the federal bankruptcy law prohibit tax increases as part of the solution, so no bankruptcy judge could impose a tax increase on the people of the states."
So: Patrick McHenry will run a key subcommittee with oversight over all bailouts, present and potential. He thinks Republicans have an opening to fix a "potentially explosive" situation with pension funds. Is he onboard with the state bankruptcy idea? He holds his cards close.
"It ain't easy," he says, "but we have to face reality."