Over the past nine months, President Trump and congressional Republicans have gone out of their way to make saving for retirement more difficult for workers who need the most help. This spring, Republicans invoked the Congressional Review Act—a law that had been used only once until this year—to undo an Obama administration rule critical in allowing states to offer their own plans to help private-sector workers save for retirement. The action will affect systems in several states—including California and Illinois—that automatically enroll private-sector workers in state-sponsored individual retirement accounts (IRAs) if their employers don’t offer retirement benefits.
An estimated 55 million workers don’t have access to a retirement savings plan through their employers, and the Obama-era rule permitted states and localities to set up auto-enroll schemes that cover these workers without violating a 1974 law called the Employee Retirement Income Security Act. But the investment industry—apparently fearing that automatic enrollment would give workers using these plans bargaining power to drive down the fees that mutual funds now charge customers—lobbied hard to kill the initiatives. State officials—Republicans as well as Democrats—pushed back, and one survey found that 72 percent of Americans who consider themselves Republicans agreed that state plans are a good idea. But congressional Republicans, betraying their usual paeans to states’ rights, bowed to industry pressure and repealed the Obama-era legal exception. In May, President Trump signed the repeal measure into law.
A further blow to American workers saving for retirement came in August, when the Trump administration delayed implementation of the Department of Labor’s so-called fiduciary rule, which would have required all types of retirement investment advisers to put their clients’ interests above their own. The rule would have barred brokers from engaging in unsavory practices such as steering clients toward high-fee mutual funds that pay the brokers to do so.
The August action wasn’t Trump’s first attack on the fiduciary rule. During the presidential campaign, one of his advisers, Anthony Scaramucci, likened the rule to the Supreme Court’s infamous Dred Scott decision, which held that African Americans were not U.S. citizens. Soon after taking office, the Trump administration delayed implementation of the rule for 60 days. But the August action, which put key parts of the regulation on hold until July 2019, is the administration’s biggest step to thwarting the rule yet. The Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, has calculated that the delay will cost retirement savers approximately $10.9 billion in higher fees over 30 years.
While the effort to undermine state auto-enroll programs and the delay of the fiduciary rule appear to have been aimed at pleasing financial-industry interests, the recent 401(k) proposal was driven by a different desire: the need to pay for proposed tax cuts that will benefit businesses and (mostly high-income) individuals. To make up for some of the government revenue that would be lost after these deep tax cuts, congressional Republicans considered imposing a $2,400-per-year cap on contributions to traditional tax-deferred 401(k) plans. (The current cap for most workers is $18,000.) The motivation for this move appears to be mere fiscal gimmickry: The change would make the cost of the Republicans’ package of tax cuts appear to be lower over the next decade, which would help them meet their self-imposed deficit targets. But the change actually wouldn’t do much to raise revenue over the longer term—it would just change the timing of tax collections to make the cost of the Republicans’ tax plan look smaller than it is.