Obama’s War on Coal: Miners Protection Act One Step Closer To Obama’s Desk

(Jonathan Ernst/Reuters, Pres. Obama: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

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Ted Goodman Contributor
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The Miners Protection Act, a bipartisan compromise championed by West Virginia Sens. Joe Manchin and Shelley Moore Capito, passed the Senate Finance Committee Wednesday.

The Miners Protection Act is a proposal to protect the health benefits and pensions of over 100,000 miners, retirees and widows. The benefits and pension fund hashed out by the United Mine Workers of America with coal companies evaporated following the 2008 recession, sky-rocketing liabilities and decreasing demand for American coal. The problem is only exacerbated by the fact that 60 percent of the pension recipients worked for companies that are no longer operating, according to Sen. Manchin.

Previous promises made by the companies to its employees prove to be unsustainable as power plants swap out coal for cheaper natural gas and as demand falls for the type of coal used in steelmaking.

The proposed legislation would redirect money from an abandoned mine reclamation fund to replenish the pension fund. Advocates for the proposal say that it would protect over 100,000 coal miners and promises that were made to them as far back as 1946, when the government wanted to avoid a massive strike and transition from a wartime economy.

The Krug-Lewis Agreement of 1946 between the federal government, the United Mine Workers of America, and the coal companies ended a lengthy miners strike, and secured pension and health benefits for the miners. The federal government has continuously supported the 70-year-old promises by enacting legislation that ensures funding is available to retired miners even as coal companies go out of business and the industry continues to decline.

“Even though it is long overdue, the Miners Protection Act passage through the Senate Finance Committee brings us one step closer to fulfilling the commitment that we made to our miners more than 70 years ago,” Sen. Manchin said in a statement. The senior Senator from West Virginia asserted that, “if Congress does not enact the Miners Protection Act, 16,000 miners will lose their healthcare at the end of this year.”

The legislation is not without its critics, chief among them are Republican colleagues of Sen. Capito. Some in the GOP, including Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, oppose the measure, calling it a “slippery slope.” The argument is that it amounts to a taxpayer-funded bailout of an industry that irresponsibly made promises that they could not keep.

The Heritage Foundation warned that passage of the legislation would effectively be, a bail-out of the mining industry and set a dangerous precedent. Passage of the bill would, “open the door to taxpayer bailouts of more than $600 billion in unfunded union pensions,” the conservative think tank asserted in a report by Rachel Greszler. “It would also open the door to the bailout of trillions of dollars in other unfunded public and non-union private pension liabilities across the country.”

The miners’ union is pushing Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to make sure the legislation gets put up for a vote before the end of the year, focusing on McConnell’s home state and what could happen to thousands of his constituents if the legislation isn’t passed; “3,200 Kentuckians will lose health care benefits, and pensions for 9,600 people will be in danger,” the United Mine Workers told the Kentucky-based Courier Journal.

“Sen. McConnell is from a coal state, and a lot of affected miners are Kentuckians,” Sen. Shelley Moore Capito asserted. The Republican Senator, elected in 2014, said that Sen. McConnell would be “sick of us by the end of December.” A representative for Sen. Manchin’s office told the DCNF that they are unaware of when a full senate vote may take place.

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