Employee Retirement Income Security Act
History Leading Up To Erisa
Pensions are a relatively modern phenomenon. Prior to 1900, few employers provided pensions to their employees, and there was little legislation to govern the pension plans that did exist. Private pension-plan growth was slow until after World War II, and the pace of pension legislation has paralleled the growth of the private pension system.
Tax legislation was the earliest mechanism for regulating private pension plans. For example, the Revenue Acts of 1921 and 1926 allowed employers to deduct pension-plan contributions from corporate income; they allowed for pension-fund income to accumulate tax-free; and they provided that participants would not be taxed until pensions were distributed to them. To qualify for favorable tax treatment, however, pension plans had to meet certain minimum requirements pertaining to employee coverage and employer contributions. The Revenue Act of 1942 imposed stricter participation requirements and, for the first time, disclosure requirements.
During and after World War II, pension coverage expanded greatly, as did reports of mismanagement and abuse of pension funds. For example, Jimmy Hoffa, the leader of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, was alleged to have abused his union's Central and Southern States Pension Fund. The need for government regulation of private pensions culminated in the passage of the Welfare and Pension Plans Disclosure Act (WPPDA) in 1959. The WPPDA required plan sponsors (e.g., employers and labor unions) to file plan descriptions and annual financial reports with the Department of Labor, and these materials were also made available to plan participants and beneficiaries. The WPPDA was amended in 1962 to give the Department of Labor additional enforcement, interpretive, and investigatory powers over employee benefit plans. The WPPDA had a very limited scope, and eventually it was replaced by ERISA's much more comprehensive system for pension regulation.
One of the seminal events leading up to the passage of ERISA was the December 1963 shutdown of the Studebaker automobile company in South Bend, Indiana. Studebaker had promised its employees generous retirement benefits, but it had never adequately funded its plan. Consequently, the Studebaker plan was able to pay full retirement benefits only to its 3,600 retirees and to those active workers who had reached the permitted retirement age of sixty, while the company's remaining 7,000 workers were left with little or nothing to show for their years of work.
In the 1960s, Congress held numerous hearings on private pension plans, but reform came slowly. U.S. Senator Jacob K. Javits (R-New York) introduced the first broad-scale pension reform bill in 1967. This bill ultimately became the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), which was designed to secure the benefits of participants in private pension plans through participation, vesting, funding, reporting, and disclosure rules, and through the establishment of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.
The administration of ERISA is divided among the Department of Labor's Pension and Welfare Benefits Administration (PWBA), the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), and the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC). Title I of ERISA, which contains rules for reporting and disclosure, vesting, participation, funding, fiduciary conduct, and civil enforcement, is administered primarily by the PWBA. Title II of ERISA, which amended the Internal Revenue Code to parallel many of the Title I rules, is administered by the IRS. Title III of ERISA is concerned with jurisdictional matters and with coordination of enforcement and regulatory activities by the PWBA and the IRS. Finally, Title IV covers the insurance of defined-benefit pension plans, and it is administered by the PBGC.