Public sector 'first responder' retirement reform could boost Congressional focus on AMO proposal

By Paul Doell
National President

Here is a headline that says so very much in so few words:

Federal first responders deserve the retirement we promised them

This banner ran over an opinion piece by Democratic Rep. Gerald Connolly of Virginia in the October 26 edition of Washington's The Hill, which covers legislative and political developments in Congress.

"From battling ever-intensifying wildfires in California to protecting the Capitol building from violent insurrection, federal firefighters and law enforcement officers put their lives on the line for their fellow Americans every day," said Rep. Connolly, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs and Oversight Committees.

"We need and depend on them to fill these demanding, arduous and hazardous duty positions - which they do proudly and with unfailing commitment. But the brave men and women who bear this burden face the very real potential that an on-the-job injury could leave them disabled, unable to return to service, and without access to the retirement benefits they were promised."

Substitute private sector "U.S. merchant marine engine and deck officers" for federal "firefighters and law enforcement officers," and these comments reflect the same truth and principle behind our union's proposal to enhance retirement security for qualified civilian merchant marine officers we as a nation "need and depend on" for defense shipping at the outbreak of a crisis, when the U.S. would activate government-owned ships to deliver the initial supplies and heavy equipment to U.S. Armed Forces overseas through government contractors.

Under the AMO proposal, qualified citizen mariner "first responders" dispatched to the 41 vessels in the combined Ready Reserve Force and Military Sealift Command surge fleets - and officers aboard specialized vessels deemed essential to the mission - would be allowed to draw earned monthly retirement payouts from their defined benefit pension plans for direct rollover to tax qualified retirement accounts while remaining active at sea and available for the wartime call.

In addition to generating greater retirement security for essential seagoing professionals, the AMO proposal would ease a troubling and growing shortage of seagoing manpower capable of getting defense cargoes to overseas points during mobilization - a concern expressed often by U.S. Transportation Command in the Department of Defense, by the Maritime Administration in the Department of Transportation and by bipartisan leaders on the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.

When I rolled this proposal out in a letter to the U.S. Treasury Department in August 2019, I explained that the value of the U.S. seagoing labor force to defense policy was evident well beyond mobilization.

"These mariners also work aboard active, privately owned and operated U.S.-flagged cargo ships serving commercial trade markets - ships that are available on demand to the Department of Defense for sustained supply and resupply of U.S. Armed Forces abroad during prolonged conflict," I wrote.

"These ships and their civilian officer and crew complements delivered 95 percent of the critical cargoes to U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan and Iraq during the long-term response to the terrorist attacks upon the United States on September 11, 2001 - a mission that lasted some 14 years."

Our "ask" at the time was an emergency "first responder" exemption from Section 402(c) (4) of the Internal Revenue Code for U.S. civilian seagoing professionals instead of legislation, which could take far too long.

In Washington, I discussed this proposal in spontaneous detail with senior staffers to a leading House Democrat from New York, and they saw much merit in it. We agreed to meet officially over official documents supporting this specific cause. Then COVID-19 hit, and it all went on hold as the capital essentially closed down.

Later, longtime AMO Chief Engineer and Maine resident Chad Morin brought the matter to Republican Sen. Susan Collins, engaging senior staff as a constituent, discussing the proven national security value of civilian American merchant mariners - a context the Senator herself knew well as a longtime advocate of the privately owned and operated U.S. merchant fleet and of Morin's alma mater, Maine Maritime Academy. At one point, Chad and I spoke directly - if virtually - with Sen. Collins.

The Collins aide managing our "first responder" proposal scheduled me for a strategic update on January 7, 2021 - a meeting that was canceled because of the chaos on Capitol Hill a day earlier.

More recently, we learned from Sen. Collins that the Internal Revenue Service had ruled out the requested rule exemption, and that she would prepare and file legislation to set our retirement security proposal in place.

Meanwhile, an AMO member residing in Massachusetts and requesting anonymity stirred the interest of Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren - indicating the proposal's broad bipartisan appeal - and we have a second Northeast Democrat in the House eager to help make our case.

We also have direct contacts on the House Ways and Means Committee, where all tax and Internal Revenue Service legislation originates, and we will bring the cause to a traditionally bipartisan support base in the House and Senate Armed Services Committees.

And yes, we will speak with Congressman Connolly, who clearly promotes retirement security for "first responders," who "have each dedicated their time and efforts in service to the American people."

As Rep. Connolly concluded: "Federal first responders are our neighbors and friends. They live their lives in service to their communities and their country, and they deserve the retirement they were promised. It is quite literally the least we can do."