As much as President Trump has fantasized a glowing future for the fading coal industry, it is the miners of the past and their widows who urgently need help right now from Washington as their retirement health plan collapses.
Legislation is being considered in Congress to help 22,500 retired union miners who have received notices that their health care benefits will be cut off on Monday unless new funding is approved. A few short-term fixes have been passed by Congress in recent years. But the miners, many with black lung and other diseases from years of labor down below, deserve a long-term solution for a more secure future.
Once firmly financed in the heyday of the industry, the health plan has hit the same hard times as Big Coal, with numerous companies going bankrupt and shedding their responsibility to pay into the fund. The industry has receded in the face of cheaper, cleaner natural gas, while there are fewer career miners contributing to the union’s share of the funding.
Anxious miners have been buttonholing lawmakers, noting that President Trump, their nonstop champion in his election campaign, has made a show of loosening environmental regulations to help mining companies regain profits. Yet he has been publicly silent on the miners’ health care problem. Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, said he has talked with Mr. Trump privately and has been assured that the president supports a permanent solution for the miners. “Tell them I’m doing everything I can,” Mr. Trump was quoted by the senator.
Private talk is far short of Mr. Trump’s signature tweet or public commitment. In the current muddle of federal budget negotiations, the miners’ cause could easily get lost, particularly with conservative critics asking why the federal government should bail out a private-sector union. But the miners insist their benefit plan, hard-won seven decades ago in a crippling strike, amounts to a continuing national commitment.
Senator Manchin is sponsoring a 10-year solution for the health care shortfall that would cost $1.3 billion and tap in part into funds from an existing mine cleanup program. The separate and far more expensive issue of miners’ pension benefits, which are similarly failing, would be put off until next year.
House Republicans have talked of another short-term bailout of less than two years to cover health care. But the Senate’s bipartisan approach is far better as a permanent answer. It gained momentum with the endorsement of the Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, who had been reluctant in the past but now is heeding pleas for help from several thousand of his own Kentucky retirees. President Trump has a chance to finally push something more than fantasy for the many coal miners who took him at his word last November.
This Editorial was originally published at the New York Times.