Three years ago, Congress took the unprecedented step of spending taxpayer dollars to bail out private-sector pensions plans. 

As part of a $1.9 trillion Covid stimulus bill, lawmakers approved an $86 billion package for multiemployer plans facing insolvency to apply for one-time federal grants that would keep them viable until at least 2051. 

There are roughly 1,400 of these plans nationwide, covering 10.7 million active and retired workers. But a significant number of them had been headed toward insolvency in recent decades, the result of changes in some industries, inadequate funding and the decline in participants.

The federal aid resulted from organized pushback to earlier legislation – the Multiemployer Pension Reform Act of 2014. That law aimed to keep plans alive without taxpayer assistance — but it stirred controversy and criticism because it permitted plans to seek approval to make deep cuts in benefits for retirees.

The pension legislation – known as the Butch Lewis Act – underscored partisan disagreement that flares to this day about the best way to assure secure retirement for American workers — an issue that the presidential campaign is bringing into sharp focus. Verbal sparring over the future of Social Security began earlier this month between President Biden and former President Donald J. Trump, in a sign that reform of the program could be an important talking point during the elections this year.

On this third anniversary of the Butch Lewis Act, I examined its impact for the New York Times.