Retirement Savings Also on Obama's Agenda

Washington Matters

Retirement Savings Also on Obama's Agenda

What's next on President Obama's legislative agenda after health care reform?

Financial Reform? Definitely. Energy? You bet. Education? Of course. But there's something else high on his to-do list that folks may not have noticed: Getting Americans to save more for retirement.

In a recent Saturday radio address, Obama laid out a bunch of small regulatory changes to pension policy. One change, for example, will allow taxpayers, beginning next year, to take their refunds in the form of U.S. savings bonds. Another will let workers contribute the value of unused paid time off to their 401(k)s if their employers agree.

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The half dozen or so alterations in retirement plans won't make a noticeable difference in the U.S. savings rate, but they do indicate that retirement policy is on Obama's radar screen and will remain so next year.

Beyond what he can do administratively, Obama plans to push for two changes that can't be made without Congress' OK: Increasing the saver's credit and requiring companies above a certain size that don't have any retirement plan to offer payroll deduction IRAs and automatically enroll workers unless they opt out.

Obama made it clear on the campaign trail and in the budget plan that he released earlier this year that he's behind these two proposals, but the fact that he mentioned them again in his address was music to the ears of pension industry lobbyists. The fact that neither proposal was taken up this year doesn't mean that they're controversial. Rather, they were simply crowded out by health care. The House and Senate committees that take the lead on health care also handle pension matters, so as one lobbyist put it last week, "If you call over there, you can't get anyone's attention" on retirement savings. At least not now.

So, after health care reform is put to bed this year -- one way or another -- the odds on pension legislation next year are very good. Aside from the fact that Obama appears truly committed to boosting retirement savings, it's safe to say that he'd like an easy win or two in Congress, and savings legslation should be just what the doctor orderered. Obama could, of course, get ambitious and decide to tie his proposals for retirement savings to an overhaul of Social Security. But tackling entitlement reform during a midterm election year would be folly, so look for pension legislation to be simple and straightforward, and to slide through Congress in 2010 with few bumps along the way.