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LA Times: More government may not be the answer to boosting retirement savings

February 14, 2017
Opinion Editorial

By Reps. Francis Rooney and Tim Walberg

The Times’ Feb. 10 editorial, “House Republicans side with Wall Street against the little guy,” sadly resorts to worn out rhetoric and attacks about motive rather than engaging in an honest debate about ideas.

If we were to respond in kind, we would question the L.A. Times’ enduring faith in big government programs and their belief in a world without unintended consequences. But we won’t, because the readers of this paper deserve better.

Instead, here is why we oppose federal regulations that would be detrimental to the retirement security of private-sector workers. During the final days of the Obama administration, the Department of Labor created a regulatory loophole that would allow states to skirt a federal law designed to protect retirement savers.

The law, known in shorthand as ERISA, was signed by President Ford more than 40 years ago. Congress passed the law because it recognized employers would need clear rules of the road that applied across state lines if employees were going to have retirement options through work.

Upon signing the law, Ford said the American people will have “greater assurances that retirement dollars will be there when they are needed.” The Obama administration’s regulatory actions undermine these long-standing assurances.

What spurred the new regulation? An effort developing across states (and in a few cities and counties) to create government-run IRAs for private-sector workers. Businesses that currently do not offer a retirement option would be forced to auto-enroll their employees in this government-run plan and be forced to deduct from their workers’ paychecks the money to fund these plans. States can impose onerous restrictions and penalties on both employers and employees.

The regulatory loophole the last administration created during its waning days gave states and cities the federal green light they needed to set up these government-run retirement plans.

For us, this debate is not whether state-run IRAs are or are not a good idea, although we have our concerns, including the risks that taxpayers are exposed to and whether these government-run plans will discourage small businesses from offering workers private-sector options.

These concerns are especially relevant in states that have a history of mishandling the pension promises made to their public-sector workers. In fact, according to one estimate, states have more than $5 trillion in unfunded pension obligations.

States such as California should be free to experiment and find new ways to encourage more retirement savings. The crux of this debate is whether states should receive a sweetheart deal and be free to do an end-run around policies that have long protected workers and retirees. We believe they should not, and that is why we have introduced resolutions that would close the regulatory loophole created by the Obama administration.

How we strengthen the retirement security of working families is an important debate to have. As part of that discussion, we would question whether more government is the answer, especially when the government’s involvement threatens to undermine the very private-sector options that have helped countless Americans retire with financial security and peace of mind.

For the sake of workers, employers, retirees and taxpayers, let’s have that debate. Just as important, let’s have that debate in good faith and with open minds. We hope that’s the kind of debate even the editors at the L.A. Times believe is worth having.

Congressman Francis Rooney represents Florida’s 19th congressional district and serves on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Congressman Walberg represents Michigan’s 7th congressional district and serves as chairman of the House Subcommittee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions. This op-ed originally appeared in the February 14 edition of the LA Times.