WASHINGTON While scrapping for the Democratic nomination for president, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are pushing similar proposals to create federal matches for lower-income workers contributions to their 401(k) and other types of retirement accounts.
In addition, John Edwards is backing a similar proposal, but one that would not necessarily earmark the matches exclusively for retirement.
If any of the leading Democratic contenders wins the presidential election this November, some sort of a federal match proposal stands a strong chance of getting passed into law. Meanwhile, other leading Democratic legislators are piling on the bandwagon.
Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obamas proposals could generate new retirement account contributions of up to $20 billion a year, according to J. Mark Iwry, non-resident senior fellow for the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, and the Treasury Departments tax benefits counsel during President William Clintons administration.
Similar proposals to spur private retirement savings could not be seen on the websites of the leading Republican candidates.
The three leading Democratic presidential contenders say that a federal matching program will encourage lower-income Americans to save for their retirement. But the Democratic front-runners would provide federal largesse in slightly different ways.
Ms. Clintons proposal would provide a matching refundable tax credit for the first $1,000 of saving by every married couple making up to $60,000 a year, and a 50% refundable credit on the first $1,000 of savings by couples making between $60,000 and $100,000 a year, according to an explanation on her campaign website. Under her proposal, a tax refund would be deposited as a match into the savers retirement account.
Mr. Obamas proposal, published on his campaign website, would provide a 50% federal match for the first $1,000 that families with annual income of less than $75,000 save, with the matched amount automatically deposited into the savers retirement account.
Mr. Edwards proposal would create a new Get Ahead tax credit that would match up to $500 a year for families earning up to $75,000 annually, and the credits could be used for retirement, college education, buying a home, investing in a small business or for medical and financial emergencies, according to his campaigns website.
Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Robert Andrews, D-N.J., also endorsed a federal matching program in concept during a Dec. 11 teleconference with reporters. However, they did not release any details.
In addition, Reps. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., and Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., introduced legislation last June 14 that would enhance a savers credit that already exists under the law. Mr. Emanuel served as a senior adviser for Mr. Clinton.
The existing savers credit matches 401(k) or IRA savings by families earning up to $53,000 at a rate ranging from 10% to 50%, depending on the level of family income. Unlike the proposals of the leading Democratic candidates, the existing program simply reduces the tax liability of the saver and does not provide a refund.
Messrs. Emanuel and Ramstads bill would expand the existing program, making the credits refundable and depositing the refunds in the savers retirement account.
Many of these (lower-income) workers are going to need assistance to supplement their retirement savings, Mr. Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said during the teleconference last month.
Hard to stop
Despite the fact that proposals to provide a refundable federal credit have been drawing much of their initial support mostly from Democrats, some legislative insiders believe they will be hard to stop even by Republicans who often perceive tax refunds as unwelcome forms of welfare.
Republicans generally dont like refundable credits, but I dont think anybody dislikes them enough to try to kill a popular bill (that includes refundable credits), said Bill Sweetnam, a partner at Groom Law Group and former tax benefits counsel for the George W. Bush administration.
The biggest problem is that low-income people dont save enough, and traditional tax incentives arent working. If you dont pay taxes, a tax incentive doesnt help you save.
Added Mr. Iwry: It is time to enact a major progressive matching credit or deposit that will help the majority of Americans to save and raise our national savings rate.
According to Mr. Iwry, who has been serving as a retirement policy adviser to both Ms. Clinton and Mr. Obama, the new Democratic proposals are similar to a Universal Savings Account plan proposed during Mr. Clintons administration.
Like the new plans, the so-called USA proposal would have provided matching deposits similar to refundable tax credits to low- and moderate-income workers, Mr. Iwry said.
In addition, the USA proposal would have set up new retirement accounts that could be used by all Americans. Unlike the new proposals, the USA proposal would have provided lower-income workers with seed money of several hundred dollars from the federal government to get the plans rolling, Mr. Iwry said.
The USA legislative proposal never was enacted, according to Mr. Iwry. But the Bush administration adopted the current savers credit program in 2001. That program has been used by about 5 million people a year, Mr. Iwry said.
Along with promoting the concept of a refundable credit for workers, both Mr. Obama and Ms. Clinton also propose creating new retirement plans for workers. Mr. Obamas proposal would require employers who dont currently offer retirement plans to provide automatic enrollment in a direct-deposit IRA. His proposal is similar to one that Mr. Iwry has been advocating alongside David John, a senior research fellow with The Heritage Foundation, Washington.
Momentum is gathering for automatic workplace savings and if Congress can agree on how to pay for it a major expansion of the matching tax credit for savers, Mr. Iwry said.