Pension Costs on DOD Contracts: Additional Guidance Needed to Ensure Costs Are Consistent and Reasonable

Source: United States Government Accountability Office, GAO-13-158, January 2013

From the summary:
Labor costs are included in the prices contractors negotiate with the Department of Defense (DOD), and include pension costs as these are a normal element of employee compensation. Contractors make two sets of calculations for their defined benefit pension plans, following two sets of standards: (1) Cost Accounting Standards (CAS), which determine how pension costs are allocated to government contracts; and (2) Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA), which establishes the minimum contribution required to fund plans. In 2008, revised ERISA rules altered the minimum funding requirements, causing CAS costs and ERISA contributions to diverge further apart. ERISA contributions have therefore greatly exceeded CAS pension costs reflected in contract prices. In December 2011, almost 4 years after ERISA changes took effect, the CAS Board, which is part of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), made changes to CAS that harmonized them to ERISA in order to gradually reduce the difference between the two calculation methods.

DOD centralizes its technical expertise for management and oversight of defined benefit pension plans. DOD contracting officers at the corporate level negotiate pension costs with contractors and receive technical support from a team of DOD actuaries. DOD audits projected and actual costs for contracts, including pension costs, to ensure they are allowable, allocable, and reasonable. The Federal Acquisition Regulation requires that employee compensation, including pensions, be reasonable. However, the pension costs used for compensation reviews can be affected not only by the value of benefits earned by employees, but also by factors such as asset returns and interest rates. Also, oversight processes do not clearly assign responsibility for assessing the reasonableness of pension benefits, including those for executives….

… DOD contractors are among the largest sponsors of defined benefit pension plans in the United States and factor pension costs into the price of DOD contracts. Since the 2008 market downturn, these pension costs have grown—thereby increasing DOD contract costs—and recent changes in rules for calculating pension costs have raised the prospect of further cost increases. Given this possibility, GAO assessed how (1) contractor pension costs are determined; (2) DOD ensures the contractor pension costs it pays are appropriate; (3) DOD contractors’ defined benefit pension plans compare with plans sponsored by similar companies; (4) pension costs have affected DOD contract costs and the factors that contributed to these pension costs; and (5) the harmonization of CAS with ERISA will affect the amounts DOD will pay in pension costs in coming years. To do this, GAO analyzed defined benefit pension plans for the largest contractors; interviewed contractor and DOD officials; and reviewed relevant laws and regulations, including changes made to harmonize CAS with ERISA. …