Politics & Policy

Trump Is Right about 401(k) Contribution Limits

President Trump meets with members of the House Ways and Means Committee in September. (Reuters photo: Jonathan Ernst)
Lowering them is a bad idea, and by saying so, the president likely saved Republican lawmakers from themselves.

Perhaps congressional Republicans would never have really decided to pay for upper-bracket tax cuts by lowering the amount Americans could put into their 401(k) retirement accounts. But the fact that Republican leaders chose not to comment on the possibility once it was reported that they were considering it last week, rather than immediately denying the story, gave reason for pause across the political spectrum.

And that’s where things stood over the weekend, as Democrats began to open fire with charges that the GOP was planning to pay for tax cuts on businesses — something they rightly believe can help fuel economic growth — by making it harder for the harried middle and working classes to put money aside for retirement without paying taxes on their savings.

But any possibility that this might actually become part of the plan Republicans will eventually present to the country likely went out the window this morning thanks to President Trump:

But it’s also true that in an economy plagued by the anemic growth that followed the 2008 recession, the middle class has found it increasingly difficult to save money for retirement. The 401(k) accounts allowed by law are a sensible way to encourage savings and increase investment in the economy. Though the government “loses” the revenue it might have collected had these savings been taxable, it gains from the surge of investment that 401(k) savings provide.

It’s not clear whether reducing the limits on how much Americans can deposit in their 401(k)s would have been a net plus for the Treasury, but we do know that it would have been a black eye for the Republican party, whose only formula for continued success involves keeping the working-class voters who put Trump in the White House on its side.

Trump’s victory in the Republican primaries was a testament to the fact that a critical mass of GOP voters wanted the party to shift its emphasis from support for businesses to an appreciation of middle- and working-class voters. Trump understood that fact intuitively, and was able to appeal to such voters as a result. That congressional Republicans would even think of lowering limits on 401(k) contributions in order to cut business taxes is proof that they still haven’t learned the right lessons from 2016.

Were Trump a more traditional president who knew how to work with Congress, he might not need to influence GOP tax planners by taking to Twitter. But Trump is not a traditional president; he’s Trump. The process of writing and passing a simple bill, let alone of attempting a fundamental overhaul of the nation’s tax code, is not something that he understands or is capable of managing. But he understands well enough that a simple message published on Twitter can stop just about anything in its tracks, and Republicans who would have suffered greatly next year from such a short-sighted policy change should be grateful today for his help.

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