Proposals to reform retirement savings plans were highlighted during an April 2012 hearing by the House Ways and Means Committee. Lawmakers were advised by many experts to move slowly on making changes to current retirement programs that might discourage employers from sponsoring plans for their workers. Nevertheless, it is clear that Congress wants to make some bold moves in the retirement savings area of the tax law and that likely it will do so under the broader umbrella of general “tax reform.” While tax reform is gaining momentum, it is unlikely to produce any change in the tax laws until 2013 or 2014. Considering that retirement planning necessarily looks long-term into the future, however, now is not too soon to pay some attention to the proposals being discussed.
The Chief of Actuarial Issues and Director of Retirement Policy for the American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries testified that current federal tax incentives can transform taxable bonuses for business owners into retirement savings contributions that benefit both owners and employees. “This incentive for the business owner to contribute for other employees results in a distribution of tax benefit that is more progressive than the current income tax structure,” she observed.
An American Benefits Council representation warned at the hearing that the wisest course for lawmakers is to not enact new laws that would disrupt the success of the current system. Short-term retirement legislation designed to boost tax revenues generally do so by eliminating the existing savings incentives and eroding the amount that workers actually save.
Committee Chairman Dave Camp, R-Mich. questioned whether the large number of retirement plans now existing with their different rules and eligibility criteria leads to confusion, reducing the effectiveness of the incentives in increasing retirement savings. Ranking member Sander Levin, D-Mich., questioned the value of making tax reform-inspired changes to retirement plans. “Tax reform should approach retirement savings incentives with an eye toward strengthening our current system and expanding participation, not as an opportunity to find revenue,” Levin said.
In advance of the hearing, the Joint Committee on Taxation (JCT) summarized the tax treatment of current-law retirement savings plans and described some recent reform proposals in a report, “Present Law and Background Relating to the Tax Treatment of Retirement Savings” (JCX-32-12). The report highlighted several of the recent proposals on retirement savings:
Automatic enrollment payroll deduction IRA. President Obama has proposed mandatory automatic enrollment payroll deduction IRA programs. An employer that does not sponsor a qualified retirement plan, SEP, or SIMPLE IRA plan for its employees (or sponsors a plan and excludes some employees) would be required to offer an automatic enrollment payroll deduction IRA program with a default contribution to a Roth IRA of three percent of compensation. An employer would not be required to offer the program if the employer has been in existence less than two years or has 10 or fewer employees.
Expand the saver’s credit. The Administration has also proposed to make the retirement savings contribution credit, known as the saver’s credit, fully refundable and for the saver’s credit to be deposited automatically in an employer-sponsored retirement plan account or IRA to which the eligible individual contributes. In addition, in place of the current credit ranging from 10 percent to 50 percent for qualified retirement savings contributions up to $2,000 per individual, the proposal would provide a credit of 50 percent of such contributions up to $500 (indexed for inflation) per individual.
Consolidate plans. The JCT also reviewed two retirement proposals from the Bush administration: Consolidating traditional and Roth IRAs into a single type of account called Retirement Savings Accounts (RSAs) and creating Lifetime Savings Accounts (LSAs) that could be used to save for any purpose with an annual limit for contributions of $2,000. The JCT explained that the tax treatment of RSAs and LSAs would be similar to the current tax treatment of Roth IRAs (contributions would not be deductible, and earnings on contributions generally would not be taxable when distributed). Additionally, the Bush Administration had proposed to consolidate various current-law employer-sponsored retirement arrangements under which individual accounts are maintained for employees and under which employees may make contributions into a single type of arrangement called an employer retirement savings account (ERSA).
The American Society of Pension Professionals and Actuaries (ASPPA) told the Ways and Means Committee that the large number of plans with different rules and criteria does not reduce the effectiveness of the incentives in increasing retirement savings. ”Consolidating all types of defined-contribution type plans into one type of plan would not be simplification,” the ASPPA cautioned. “It would disrupt savings, and force state and local governments and nonprofits to modify their retirement savings plans and procedures.”