Congress blocks Seattle Effort to Help Residents Set Up IRAs

By:  Daniel Beekman
Source: The Seattle Times

Congress has scuttled a Seattle City Council member’s plan to help people who don’t have retirement plans through their employers save money for retirement.

Following the lead of the House of Representatives, the Senate voted Thursday to repeal an Obama administration rule change giving cities such as Seattle legal wiggle room to provide such workers with Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs).

Councilmember Tim Burgess has been working for the last year on a proposal for Seattle to set up an IRA plan. Joined by counterparts in New York City and Philadelphia, Burgess lobbied President Barack Obama’s Department of Labor for the rule change. Thursday’s vote means his proposal now will likely begin gathering dust.

“It’s disappointing because this was a very pro-business, pro-worker, pro-economic-growth rule that would have benefited up to 200,000 workers in Seattle,” Burgess said.

“Our small-business community loves this idea, but we’ve lost it to the kind of partisan idiocy we see in Washington, D.C.”

The repeal cleared the House by a wide margin, with Washington’s four Republican representatives voting for it.

But it nearly stalled in the Senate, where the vote was 50-49, breaking largely along partisan lines. Washington’s senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, were in the minority, voting against the repeal.

“We understood last week that maybe there were three Republican senators who had agreed to vote in favor of keeping the rule, but then (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell put out the word … and only one Republican defected,” Burgess said.

The Senate is still considering the repeal of a related rule change for states.

“With a $14 trillion retirement-savings gap and 55 million Americans without access to workplace retirement savings, our country is staring down the barrel of a retirement crisis,” Cantwell said in a statement.

Senate Republicans, she added, “are standing in the way of innovative attempts by states and cities like Washington and Seattle to tackle this challenge.”

People are more likely to save when they have access to retirement plans through their employers, but about 40 percent of private-sector workers in the Seattle area have no such access, according to the Pew Research Center.

Employees without access to a 401(k) or pension through their employers already can choose to open IRAs on their own. But proponents of city-facilitated plans say many people don’t do that. They say those people would benefit from being nudged.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association have opposed state- and city-run plans.

In a floor speech Wednesday, Murray said, “ I think we all know what this repeal is truly about. President Trump is committed to doing everything he can to put the interests of Wall Street first, and Republicans in Congress are helping him do it.”

Burgess’ proposal called for employees at businesses without retirement plans to be auto-enrolled in the city’s plan, with the ability to opt out at any time.

The employees would be given a default investment product and contribution rate but could choose to make changes.

Businesses would process the employee contributions through existing payroll systems but wouldn’t need to contribute any money to the IRAs.

Though a special city board would select the investment products, the actual handling of the IRAs would be outsourced to a private firm, Burgess has said.

Unlike the pension plans that Seattle has for its own employees, the IRA plan wouldn’t give private-sector employees a guaranteed rate of return.