Pension plan assets took a beating last year, and companies that sponsor defined-benefit pension plans face the bill for that damage next year in the form of sharply higher plan contributions. But recent events on Capitol Hill suggest Congress may act to allow companies to postpone the reckoning. The numbers involved are immense. Watson Wyatt estimates that under current rules, U.S. companies are on the hook for $89 billion in pension contributions next year and $146.5 billion in 2011.

That compares with the $32.4 billion that companies contributed to their pension plans last year.

Organizations representing companies with pension plans are asking Congress to allow companies to pay over a longer time frame.

Companies aren’t asking the government for money, just for more time to make up last year’s losses, notes Kathryn Ricard, vice president for retirement policy at the ERISA Industry Committee (ERIC), a Washington-based group that represents big companies on employee benefit plan issues. “2008 was such an anomaly in terms of stock market returns, it just knocked people off their feet,” she says.

While the Pension Protection Act of 2006 allows companies to amortize plan losses over seven years, three legislative proposals would extend that time frame to nine years and let companies pay only the interest in the first two years, Ricard says. “That takes the sting out right now, when there’s such a cash crunch.”

She says encouraging signs include the House Ways and Means Committee’s hearing on this issue last month and the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee’s plan for a hearing on the topic. But pension funding may have a hard time competing with health care reform for legislators’ attention, Ricard says. “Health care is just taking up all of the air in the room.”

Employer groups argue that funding relief would benefit the economy by helping companies facing big pension contributions to avoid taking steps that would further weigh on U.S. growth, like cutting employment or delaying capital investments. The groups acknowledge, though, that it’s hard to come up with data that confirms the relationship between pension contributions and the economy.

One big question about the proposed legislation is whether companies that take advantage of funding relief would have to make some sort of promise about maintaining benefits in the future. Mark Warshawsky, director of retirement research at Watson Wyatt, argues that if the point of funding relief is to prevent further damage to the economy, “then conditionality is simply not appropriate. It’s going to dilute the effectiveness of the relief.”