After several false starts, Congress is on track to greatly expand individual retirement accounts this year.
Key lawmakers from both parties this month introduced similar plans to overhaul IRAs, signaling bipartisan support for change. All of the proposals would allow penalty-free withdrawals for specific purposes such as education expenses and would increase the amount of tax-deductible contributions.
Though Congress last year allowed nonworking spouses to open accounts, broader reform has failed in the past. That's because federal budget deficits made enacting new tax deductions nearly impossible.
But increased IRA deductions will no longer be considered a drain on the Treasury. For the first time, congressional analysts are measuring the economic growth generated by new savings as a revenue raiser for the government.
"When you are saving a greater amount per year, you're going to raise tax revenue," said Herb Spira, tax counsel at the Independent Bankers Association of America.
As a result, more lawmakers are backing IRA expansions.
A Republican tax relief bill sponsored by Sen. Trent Lott, the majority leader, and Sen. Orrin Hatch includes broad IRA expansion. Not to be left out, Sen. Tom Daschle, the minority leader, and 16 other Democrats are sponsoring IRA measures as part of a larger bill to make pensions more available.
"Both sides recognize that we need more long-term savings by individuals," said Donna Fisher, director of tax and accounting at the American Bankers Association.
While he now has a lot of company, Senate Finance Committee Chairman William V. Roth will continue to lead the debate.
The Delaware Republican introduced his Super IRA legislation Jan. 22. It is co-sponsored by Sen. John Breaux, D-La. An identical measure has been sponsored in the House by Reps. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., and Richard Neal, D- Mass.
The Super IRA plan would:
Authorize penalty-free withdrawals for first-time home purchases, college costs, family medical bills, and living expenses during unemployment.
Eliminate income limits for tax-deductible contributions to inflation by the year 2001.
Permit IRA contributions for 401(k) participants.
Allow homemakers to contribute to an IRA, regardless of whether their spouses participate in employer pension plans.
Index maximum yearly contributions for inflation.
Create IRA plus, which reverses traditional accounts by letting holders withdraw earnings tax-free after age 59-and-a-half. Contributions, however, would not be tax-deductible.
Permit IRA investments in collectible coins and bullion.