Gutting the 401k: The Stupid Party Digs in Its Heels

 

On Sunday, I posted a piece with this title and a slightly different subtitle, observing that the mainstream Republicans seem to have a death wish, drawing attention to the pitiful record of the Republicans in Congress when it came to delivering legislation to the President’s desk, and adding:

And when they come to tax reform, what is their big idea? To cut corporate taxes, which would be a boon, and to make up for the revenue losses that this would entail not by cutting expenditures but by gutting the 401k . The fact that their proposal that tax-free contributions to this retirement-savings vehicle be cut to $2400 a year has Wall Street up in arms bothers me not one whit. It is not the task of the US government to feed the greed of a particular industry.

It is its effect on the ordinary joe that I have in mind. I mean the fella who plays by the rules, works hard, and socks money away for his retirement, using the 401k. If self-reliance is a virtue and if promoting individual self-reliance serves the public good, as it surely does, then the provisions within the tax code providing for the 401k are among that code’s best provisions. From the perspective of macroeconomics, the 401k promotes capital formation. From the perspective of public policy, it reduces dependency. What’s not to like?

Moreover, subverting the 401k is bad politics. If Wall Street is up in arms, think about the fury that legislation of this sort will elicit from the ordinary joe once he feels the pinch. Are the Republicans in Congress so beholden to the Chamber of Commerce that they have forgotten their party’s base? If they gut the 401k, in 2018, they will lose both the House and the Senate in a landslide. Is there no one in the Republican Party’s congressional leadership who has any sense?

When this appeared, I was immediately taken to task by a member who argued that the Republicans had done a lot (though he had to concede they had actually passed next to no legislation). Then, with regard to the 401k, he added:

[C]an you inform us where, exactly, you saw this in print? Please provide the link, because I have only seen it one time, in an AP wire story last week, reprinted in WaPo and their left-leaning brothers. I’ve been looking for it ever since and can’t find it. I think a link to the actual “proposal that tax-free contributions to this retirement-savings vehicle be cut to $2400 a year” would be much appreciated, so I can be as outraged as you. I will write a letter to Cruz and Cornyn (I’m from Texas) and to Trump and Pence, once I have the proof in hand.

If you are only going to quote the AP story, I think a retraction would be nice.

This individual’s attention was then called to a similar piece in The Wall Street Journal, reporting, “Lobbyists and others in the retirement and financial services industries who have spoken to congressional staff and committee members say lawmakers are looking at proposals that would allow 401(k) participants to contribute significantly less than what is currently allowed in a traditional tax-deferred 401(k). An often mentioned amount is $2,400 a year. It isn’t clear whether that would only apply to 401(k)s or IRAs or both.”

To this, he responded with incredulity, “[I]n my book, that’s nothing but gossip. We’ve got ‘lobbyists and others’ who have spoken to ‘staff’ and etcetera say lawmakers are ‘looking at proposals’… and ‘An often mentioned amount is $2,400 a year’…”

As you may be aware, there has been a great deal more in the press recently about this supposedly fake news. One could, of course, suppose that — when the President of the United States intervened to indicate that he was opposed to gutting the 401k — he had been fooled by “gossip.” But it makes more sense to suppose that the Associated Press and The Wall Street Journal, not to mention Pravda-on-the-Hudson, had done some real reporting.

As it turns out, some very important Republicans are still intent on gutting the 401k. Yesterday, The Weekly Standard reported that — Donald Trump’s objections notwithstanding — Kevin Brady, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee in the House of Representatives, was still interested in the project. And there is a similar story on the front page of today’s Wall Street Journal., which once again intimates that the Republicans are thinking about restricting tax-free contributions to $2,400 a year.

I understand the propensity to regard the mainstream media as suspect. When Pravda-in-America in its various guises reports on Donald Trump, there tends to be an admixture of fiction with fact. But it is a mistake to respond reflexively in utter disbelief to news reports suggesting that the Republicans in Congress are on the verge of doing something really stupid. They, alas, do such things quite frequently.

In this case, however, it looks as if Donald Trump (who is more often than not underestimated) will wade in to save the congressional Republicans from themselves.

Published in Domestic Policy
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  1. FredGoodhue Coolidge
    FredGoodhue
    @FredGoodhue

    With Social Security in trouble, and no reform in sight, the 401k and similar retirement plans are even more important.

    The SALT and mortgage deductions subsidize bad actions, local over taxing and overpriced and over large houses; but congress does not want to abolish them.  The 401k subsidize good actions, saving for retirement.

    • #1
  2. Albert Arthur Coolidge
    Albert Arthur
    @AlbertArthur

    I don’t know what his source was, but last week @michaelgraham . reported on Michael in the Morning that the proposal was to limit 401K contributions in favor of expanding Roth IRA contributions. If this is true, then it actually makes sense. It’s better for the individual in the long wrong. With the Roth you do get taxed now, but you don’t later when you withdraw. You actually pay fewer taxes.

    However, I’m completely in agreement about Republicans being stupid. If what Michael said is true, what Republicans should do is simply change how 401K contributions work. Instead of, “sorry, you can’t contribute as much to 401K, buuuuuut, you can contribute more to Roth IRA,” what they should say is: “Great news! You can contribute an unlimited amount to 401K, and you won’t get taxed now and you won’t get taxed when you withdraw.”

    But noooooo.

    • #2
  3. Cato Rand Inactive
    Cato Rand
    @CatoRand

    I did not, and do not, suggest that you were reporting “fake news.”  I’ve no doubt this is under consideration as a means of moving tax revenues forward in time.  I’ll still believe it’s going to happen when it actually does.  As I said on your last thread, it remains too politically toxic to be likely to occur.

    • #3
  4. Frozen Chosen Inactive
    Frozen Chosen
    @FrozenChosen

    So I wanted to say a couple of things about this issue; I agree that it is a horrible idea but not for the obvious reason.  The average worker contributes less than $1,800 a year to their 401k so this new limit would not effect the majority of workers and I imagine this is factoring into the GOP’s thinking.  However, many of us baby boomers who didn’t save well in our younger years are now trying to max out our contributions ($24,000k) per year to try and catch up so we can retire at a decent age.  Reducing the limit to $2,400k per year would devastate our efforts to build a retirement nest egg.

    So not only would millennials be discouraged from saving when they are young, us older folks who need to catch up would be screwed.  Also, the optics are horrible and the MSM would have a field day so it’s a bad idea all around.  I would love for Mr Brady to explain just what the heck they are thinking by advancing such a destructive idea.

    • #4
  5. Frozen Chosen Inactive
    Frozen Chosen
    @FrozenChosen

    Albert Arthur (View Comment):
    I don’t know what his source was, but last week @michaelgraham . reported on Michael in the Morning that the proposal was to limit 401K contributions in favor of expanding Roth IRA contributions. If this is true, then it actually makes sense. It’s better for the individual in the long wrong. With the Roth you do get taxed now, but you don’t later when you withdraw. You actually pay fewer taxes.

    However, I’m completely in agreement about Republicans being stupid. If what Michael said is true, what Republicans should do is simply change how 401K contributions work. Instead of, “sorry, you can’t contribute as much to 401K, buuuuuut, you can contribute more to Roth IRA,” what they should say is: “Great news! You can contribute an unlimited amount to 401K, and you won’t get taxed now and you won’t get taxed when you withdraw.”

    But noooooo.

    I would be in favor of Roth IRA expansion if they eliminate the income limits.  Right now I cannot contribute to a Roth because I make too much money. #waragainstsuccess

    • #5
  6. Cato Rand Inactive
    Cato Rand
    @CatoRand

    Albert Arthur (View Comment):
    I don’t know what his source was, but last week @michaelgraham . reported on Michael in the Morning that the proposal was to limit 401K contributions in favor of expanding Roth IRA contributions. If this is true, then it actually makes sense. It’s better for the individual in the long wrong. With the Roth you do get taxed now, but you don’t later when you withdraw. You actually pay fewer taxes.

    However, I’m completely in agreement about Republicans being stupid. If what Michael said is true, what Republicans should do is simply change how 401K contributions work. Instead of, “sorry, you can’t contribute as much to 401K, buuuuuut, you can contribute more to Roth IRA,” what they should say is: “Great news! You can contribute an unlimited amount to 401K, and you won’t get taxed now and you won’t get taxed when you withdraw.”

    But noooooo.

    From what I’ve read, what’s under consideration is just limiting the tax deductible contributions and leaving the Roth limits in place.  The idea isn’t to discourage retirement savings entirely, it’s just to minimize the tax deferral that pushes tax revenues on current income out into the future.  I.e., they want to effectively move the taxes on retirement savings forward in time.  That would allow for tax cuts in the present that would be more revenue neutral within the 10 year budget window (a shell game but one that Congress plays often).

    • #6
  7. Cato Rand Inactive
    Cato Rand
    @CatoRand

    Frozen Chosen (View Comment):

    Albert Arthur (View Comment):
    I don’t know what his source was, but last week @michaelgraham . reported on Michael in the Morning that the proposal was to limit 401K contributions in favor of expanding Roth IRA contributions. If this is true, then it actually makes sense. It’s better for the individual in the long wrong. With the Roth you do get taxed now, but you don’t later when you withdraw. You actually pay fewer taxes.

    However, I’m completely in agreement about Republicans being stupid. If what Michael said is true, what Republicans should do is simply change how 401K contributions work. Instead of, “sorry, you can’t contribute as much to 401K, buuuuuut, you can contribute more to Roth IRA,” what they should say is: “Great news! You can contribute an unlimited amount to 401K, and you won’t get taxed now and you won’t get taxed when you withdraw.”

    But noooooo.

    I would be in favor of Roth IRA expansion if they eliminate the income limits. Right now I cannot contribute to a Roth because I make too much money. #waragainstsuccess

    I would put 100% of my earned income into a Roth if I could.

    • #7
  8. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    The Hill reports that Trump is now indicating he is open to negotiating on the 401K change. So this thing ain’t over yet. Frankly it is plans like this that make me ever more certain they will fail to pass any tax reform. It will get hung up somewhere because they need to make it revenue neutral, which means they will have to just move the burden around which means someone will get their ox gored. Getting rid of the State Tax deduction though is what I think will kill it in the end, because the way it is being sold is as sticking it to the Blue States.

    • #8
  9. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    It’s important that everyone keep jumping on the notion as dumb politically and counter productive economically even if support for it is weak and limited.  One should never underestimate the self destructive economic illiteracy of our law makers.

    • #9
  10. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    I Walton (View Comment):
    It’s important that everyone keep jumping on the notion as dumb politically and counter productive economically even if support for it is weak and limited. One should never underestimate the self destructive economic illiteracy of our law makers.

    Plus if they don’t hear people complaining about it they will assume no one will notice and try to do it anyway. How can you keep them accountable if you just have the attitude that you can’t yell at them when they are planing to do something you think is stupid. Why wait to see if they will do it and then yell at them then? Do you just let your kid stick a fork in the socket and then scold them? People need to make it clear that this is a stupid idea. Who in the upper middle class will want to pay for a corporate tax reduction with their savings? Honestly. How thick do you have to be. But, hey they need to make the numbers add up.

    • #10
  11. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Albert Arthur (View Comment):
    reported on Michael in the Morning that the proposal was to limit 401K contributions in favor of expanding Roth IRA contributions. If this is true, then it actually makes sense. It’s better for the individual in the long wrong. With the Roth you do get taxed now, but you don’t later when you withdraw. You actually pay fewer taxes.

    There are a whole lot of assumptions in that “you actually pay fewer taxes” statement.

    You’re assuming a lower tax rate in the future.  You’re assuming no consumption tax is instituted on top of the income tax.

    I don’t really have a problem with limiting the limit on the tax-deductible 401k, as long as it’s coupled with the ability to keep making contributions to a Roth, regardless of income.

    Making certain assumptions about tax rates now versus tax rates in the future, the math really works out that there’s not much difference between a standard 401k and a Roth in terms of NPV of future cash flows  (one lets you effectively put in more now, but takes some away on the back end.  The other lets you put in effectively less now, but you keep it all on the back end.)

    The main reason to prefer the standard 401k over the Roth is “The bird in the hand” theory – I *know* I’m saving on taxes today.  I’m only being promised lower taxes int he future.

     

    • #11
  12. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    It will get hung up somewhere because they need to make it revenue neutral,

    Says who?

    • #12
  13. Albert Arthur Coolidge
    Albert Arthur
    @AlbertArthur

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):
    You’re assuming a lower tax rate in the future. You’re assuming no consumption tax is instituted on top of the income tax.

    What I was assuming was that if I contribute X today, it will increase through compound interest to Y when I withdraw it in 30 years. If Y>X, then getting taxed on X is better than getting taxed on Y. I don’t disagree with your assumptions, but would just point out the same applies to 401K, in that, well, things can change.

    • #13
  14. JcTPatriot Inactive
    JcTPatriot
    @JcTPatriot

    My point to you was, and still is, that an ex-Newsweek reporter saying “looking at proposals” and “an often mentioned amount” is not the same thing as you saying the “Stupid Party” will be “Gutting the 401(k)” which you set as your Title of your Main Feed post.

    So then the MSM runs to catch up with Brady at a breakfast somewhere, and he doesn’t slam his fist on the table and vehemently deny the supposed $2400 limit – while he is in the middle of negotiations over the budget – that compels you to now call it proof that it isn’t Fake News?

    Both the Weekly Standard and the WSJ used the same quotes from the Christian Science Monitor breakfast, so it was exactly the same story! If every News Media outlet in America prints the same quotes, it doesn’t lend any more credence to the Fake news than the original story!

    Interesting that you didn’t quote Brady’s reply. He replied: “We think, in tax reform, we can create incentives for Americans to save more and save sooner, which can help them. So we are exploring a number of ideas in those areas. … We are continuing discussions with the president, all focused on saving more, saving sooner.”

    How would cutting the 401(k) contribution limit encourage people to save more? The fact that he won’t flat-out deny the WSJ story could merely be that he doesn’t want to air out their negotiation tactics.

    • #14
  15. Albert Arthur Coolidge
    Albert Arthur
    @AlbertArthur

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    It will get hung up somewhere because they need to make it revenue neutral,

    Says who?

    The God of Congress: the CBO.

    • #15
  16. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Albert Arthur (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    It will get hung up somewhere because they need to make it revenue neutral,

    Says who?

    The God of Congress: the CBO.

    Only because Congress decided they “need to”.  It’s not a law, or in the Constitution. It’s a “rule”, like filibusters on judicial appointments.

    • #16
  17. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    JcTPatriot (View Comment):
    Interesting that you didn’t quote Brady’s reply. He replied: “We think, in tax reform, we can create incentives for Americans to save more and save sooner, which can help them. So we are exploring a number of ideas in those areas. … We are continuing discussions with the president, all focused on saving more, saving sooner.”

    How would cutting the 401(k) contribution limit encourage people to save more? The fact that he won’t flat-out deny the WSJ story could merely be that he doesn’t want to air out their negotiation tactics.

    Someone in one of these threads said the majority of 401k accounts contribute less than $2400 annually.

    Assuming that is in fact true, I can think of lots of ways you could “create incentives to save more and save sooner” and still cap the contribution limit at $2400.

     

    • #17
  18. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    The Hill reports that Trump is now indicating he is open to negotiating on the 401K change. So this thing ain’t over yet. Frankly it is plans like this that make me ever more certain they will fail to pass any tax reform. It will get hung up somewhere because they need to make it revenue neutral, which means they will have to just move the burden around which means someone will get their ox gored. Getting rid of the State Tax deduction though is what I think will kill it in the end, because the way it is being sold is as sticking it to the Blue States.

    Why not simply limit the SALT deduction to some amount – say $5,000?  That moves a lot of people out from under threat of falling prey to a nominal tax increase but hits a few high-earners in deep blue states where they live.

    At this point, I’m not opposed to making the Democrats live with having to vote against their tax-the-rich rhetoric.

    • #18
  19. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):
    Someone in one of these threads said the majority of 401k accounts contribute less than $2400 annually.

    Assuming that is in fact true, I can think of lots of ways you could “create incentives to save more and save sooner” and still cap the contribution limit at $2400.

    If we were to trade a slightly reduced 401k contribution limit for removal of Roth IRA limits, I think that would be a fair trade.  Obviously, $2,400 is too low, but could we live with $12,000 annually?  I think so.  I would contribute the same amount effectively, but splitting my contributions between pre and post tax deductions.  That isn’t the end of the world.

    • #19
  20. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):
    Someone in one of these threads said the majority of 401k accounts contribute less than $2400 annually.

    Assuming that is in fact true, I can think of lots of ways you could “create incentives to save more and save sooner” and still cap the contribution limit at $2400.

    If we were to trade a slightly reduced 401k contribution limit for removal of Roth IRA limits, I think that would be a fair trade. Obviously, $2,400 is too low, but could we live with $12,000 annually? I think so. I would contribute the same amount effectively, but splitting my contributions between pre and post tax deductions. That isn’t the end of the world.

    Be careful what you wish for.  The more money that gets packed away in Roths, the more tempted they’re going to be to go after those in the future.  Wait until they can rabble-rouse about all those rich  people with their “tax free income”.

     

    You’d be wise to keep a certain amount of your retirement assets in non-retirement accounts.

    • #20
  21. Aaron Miller Inactive
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    So much for simplifying the tax code. The phrase “too clever by half” comes to mind.

    But this is Republicans bread-and-butter — tweaking the numbers and drafting clever formulas. This is what they campaigned on, right?

    • #21
  22. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):
    Be careful what you wish for. The more money that gets packed away in Roths, the more tempted they’re going to be to go after those in the future. Wait until they can rabble-rouse about all those rich people with their “tax free income”.

    You’d be wise to keep a certain amount of your retirement assets in non-retirement accounts.

    What are we thinking, here – real estate?

    • #22
  23. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe
    @PaulARahe

    Cato Rand (View Comment):
    I did not, and do not, suggest that you were reporting “fake news.” I’ve no doubt this is under consideration as a means of moving tax revenues forward in time. I’ll still believe it’s going to happen when it actually does. As I said on your last thread, it remains too politically toxic to be likely to occur.

    I agree, as (I think I did on the earlier thread). Trump will stop it if no one else does.

    • #23
  24. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe
    @PaulARahe

    Frozen Chosen (View Comment):
    So I wanted to say a couple of things about this issue; I agree that it is a horrible idea but not for the obvious reason. The average worker contributes less than $1,800 a year to their 401k so this new limit would not effect the majority of workers and I imagine this is factoring into the GOP’s thinking. However, many of us baby boomers who didn’t save well in our younger years are now trying to max out our contributions ($24,000k) per year to try and catch up so we can retire at a decent age. Reducing the limit to $2,400k per year would devastate our efforts to build a retirement nest egg.

    So not only would millennials be discouraged from saving when they are young, us older folks who need to catch up would be screwed. Also, the optics are horrible and the MSM would have a field day so it’s a bad idea all around. I would love for Mr Brady to explain just what the heck they are thinking by advancing such a destructive idea.

    Amen

    • #24
  25. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe
    @PaulARahe

    JcTPatriot (View Comment):
    My point to you was, and still is, that an ex-Newsweek reporter saying “looking at proposals” and “an often mentioned amount” is not the same thing as you saying the “Stupid Party” will be “Gutting the 401(k)” which you set as your Title of your Main Feed post.

    So then the MSM runs to catch up with Brady at a breakfast somewhere, and he doesn’t slam his fist on the table and vehemently deny the supposed $2400 limit – while he is in the middle of negotiations over the budget – that compels you to now call it proof that it isn’t Fake News?

    Both the Weekly Standard and the WSJ used the same quotes from the Christian Science Monitor breakfast, so it was exactly the same story! If every News Media outlet in America prints the same quotes, it doesn’t lend any more credence to the Fake news than the original story!

    Interesting that you didn’t quote Brady’s reply. He replied: “We think, in tax reform, we can create incentives for Americans to save more and save sooner, which can help them. So we are exploring a number of ideas in those areas. … We are continuing discussions with the president, all focused on saving more, saving sooner.”

    How would cutting the 401(k) contribution limit encourage people to save more? The fact that he won’t flat-out deny the WSJ story could merely be that he doesn’t want to air out their negotiation tactics.

    Proving My Point: Rahe Digs In His Heels

    You still don’t get it.

    • #25
  26. Paul A. Rahe Contributor
    Paul A. Rahe
    @PaulARahe

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):
    Someone in one of these threads said the majority of 401k accounts contribute less than $2400 annually.

    Assuming that is in fact true, I can think of lots of ways you could “create incentives to save more and save sooner” and still cap the contribution limit at $2400.

    If we were to trade a slightly reduced 401k contribution limit for removal of Roth IRA limits, I think that would be a fair trade. Obviously, $2,400 is too low, but could we live with $12,000 annually? I think so. I would contribute the same amount effectively, but splitting my contributions between pre and post tax deductions. That isn’t the end of the world.

    Be careful what you wish for. The more money that gets packed away in Roths, the more tempted they’re going to be to go after those in the future. Wait until they can rabble-rouse about all those rich people with their “tax free income”.

    You’d be wise to keep a certain amount of your retirement assets in non-retirement accounts.

    This is prescient.

    • #26
  27. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male
    @MiffedWhiteMale

    Paul A. Rahe (View Comment):

    Be careful what you wish for. The more money that gets packed away in Roths, the more tempted they’re going to be to go after those in the future. Wait until they can rabble-rouse about all those rich people with their “tax free income”.

    You’d be wise to keep a certain amount of your retirement assets in non-retirement accounts.

    This is prescient.

    Let’s hope not!

    But yeah, probably…

     

    • #27
  28. JcTPatriot Inactive
    JcTPatriot
    @JcTPatriot

    Majestyk (View Comment):

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):
    Someone in one of these threads said the majority of 401k accounts contribute less than $2400 annually.

    Assuming that is in fact true, I can think of lots of ways you could “create incentives to save more and save sooner” and still cap the contribution limit at $2400.

    If we were to trade a slightly reduced 401k contribution limit for removal of Roth IRA limits, I think that would be a fair trade. Obviously, $2,400 is too low, but could we live with $12,000 annually? I think so. I would contribute the same amount effectively, but splitting my contributions between pre and post tax deductions. That isn’t the end of the world.

    I’m thinking it isn’t the end of the world if they don’t lower your taxes, either. Why bother with that nonsense? It’s just a couple extra candy bars or whatever, right?

    I’ve posted before that I am perfectly fine with them cutting the Corporate Tax and worrying about the Personal Income Tax cuts next year. If the economy starts roaring from the Corporate Tax cuts, I’ll get my raise from my boss, thank you very much. I don’t believe my cut is going to be $4,000 or $5,000 or whatever number they’re suggesting about today.

    • #28
  29. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    One of the reasons this is dumb and economically illiterate is insisting that tax cuts  be revenue neutral.  What matters is how we finance our spending and the spending itself.  Financing it from savings gets everything backwards.  (Good lord I had written spending.)

    • #29
  30. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    It will get hung up somewhere because they need to make it revenue neutral,

    Says who?

    Reconciliation Rules. Unless they plan to let the tax cuts sunset.

    • #30
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