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Ways and Means considers major changes to retirement savings incentives

Much of the bill, approved by the committee Tuesday, recycles provisions from previous Congresses

Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., and ranking member Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, talk before a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on U.S.-China trade relations in Longworth Building on Wednesday, February 27, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Chairman Richard Neal, D-Mass., and ranking member Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, talk before a House Ways and Means Committee hearing on U.S.-China trade relations in Longworth Building on Wednesday, February 27, 2019. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The third time may be the charm for a 122-page collection of retirement benefit tweaks that died in the last two Congresses but has become a top priority for House Ways and Means Chairman Richard E. Neal.

Much of the bill that the Ways and Means Committee approved Tuesday recycles provisions from previous Congresses. One major change would make it easier for small businesses to band together to offer retirement benefits, while offering tax credits to defray the start-up costs.

Taken together, the $16.3 billion collection of tax incentives and law changes favoring products like annuities and Individual Retirement Accounts would produce major changes in retirement savings policy, benefits experts say.

“It’s simplification and access in small, sort of chippy ways,” said Diane Thompson, a Ballard Spahr attorney specializing in benefits and executive compensation. “But the cumulative effect . . . could be significant.”

Thompson says she expects small charities — she posited the case of a charity with just two employees — will be among the small employers most likely to take advantage of the new joint retirement plans if the bill becomes law. “Any kind of retirement vehicle for those two people is [cost] prohibitive,” she said.

Allowing the establishment of tax-favored multiple employer or “pooled” provider plans would cost $3.5 billion over a decade, according to a Joint Committee on Taxation estimate.

The bill reflects lot of small tweaks that when put together would improve coverage, access and savings opportunities, said Lynn Dudley, senior vice president for global retirement and compensation policy at the American Benefits Council. Her group represents large employers that sponsor retirement plans as well as companies that administer them.

There are other major new features added to the bill, Dudley said. Those include allowing contributions to an Individual Retirement Account to be made after the current maximum of age 70 1/2; a decrease from 1,000 hours to 500 hours of the minimum a long-term employee must work each year before being required to be included in a company’s pension plan; and an overhaul of rules for the pension plans at certain daily newspapers in cities with at least 100,000 people.

The most costly single provision, at $8.9 billion over 10 years, would push back the age at which required minimum distributions from IRAs must be taken, from age 70 1/2 to 72, depriving the Treasury of the taxable distributions during that time. But the bill’s sponsors argue Americans are living longer than when the rules were first established in the 1960s, and need to make their savings last longer.

Paltry savings

The Insured Retirement Institute has found that 42 percent of baby boomers have no money saved for retirement, said Paul Richman, chief government and political affairs officer at the institute, which represents major insurance companies, banks and broker-dealers.

He said the Ways and Means bills would help alleviate that situation. “It’s a comprehensive package with some real common sense, bipartisan solutions,” said Richman.

He said a provision that would allow employers to rely on a state insurance regulator’s certification that a company is safe and sound when it comes to buying their annuities — which pay out fixed annual sums to investors — would be a boon for the industry. Current law places the fiduciary responsibility on the employer, which tends to scare off potential buyers, Richman said.

A heavy-hitter list of 85 companies and organizations reported lobbying on the predecessor bill in the third quarter of last year. Notable on the list were financial services giants State Street Bank, TIAA, MetLife, Prudential, New York Life, and Lincoln National. Additionally, large financial services associations lobbied on the legislation, including the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association and the American Council of Life Insurers.

Ballard Spahr’s Thompson pointed out that life insurance companies would be major sellers of the products affected by the legislation. And she wasn’t surprised that State Street lobbied on the bill, since the bank is one of the largest players in the wealth management industry. Boston-based State Street is one of only eight U.S. banks that are considered global-systemically important financial institutions.

As all House tax bills must, the retirement package needed to adhere to pay-as-you-go budget rules.

Much of the measure’s cost is offset by a provision to raise $15.7 billion in 10-year revenue by requiring beneficiaries of inherited IRAs — with certain exceptions, such as spouses and children who are minors — to withdraw all of the funds within a decade, triggering tax on the distributions.

Bad climate

An earlier version of the bill was introduced in both chambers in the 115th Congress. Those bills never had a vote in committee or on the floor, despite having bipartisan support. The House bill had 39 Democrat and 52 Republican cosponsors, while the Senate version was sponsored by then-Senate Finance Chairman Utah Republican Orrin G. Hatch and ranking member Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden.

The new Senate version, introduced Monday by Wyden and Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley, the current Finance chairman, is similar but not identical. For instance, the House bill allows retirees to wait until age 72 to take mandatory distributions from a pension plan, while the Senate bill leaves the threshold at age 70 1/2.

Richman blames the political climate for the lack of movement in the prior Congress, stemming from bad feelings lingering from the tax code overhaul, which Democrats universally opposed, and the 2018 year-end train wreck that turned into a 35-day partial government shutdown.

The version of the bill that came before the committee Tuesday was rolled out with bipartisan fanfare March 29. Retirement savings was the subject of the first Ways and Means hearing held by Neal this year, and he called the issue one of his top four priorities for this Congress.

“With this legislation, we’re taking bold, bipartisan action to address our nation’s retirement crisis,” Neal said in a statement. Last week, the Massachusetts Democrat told reporters that he expected the legislation would “sail” through committee.

“Our reforms will help families save more and earlier for the future,” Ways and Means ranking member Kevin Brady, a Texas Republican, said in the joint release with Neal.

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