WASHINGTON - Banking industry officials are welcoming President Clinton's renewed push for government-subsidized savings accounts, but political observers are divided on whether a proposal that failed last year has any better chance of enactment in 2000.
White House Chief of Staff John D. Podesta said over the weekend that the President plans to make universal savings accounts one of the cornerstones of a 10-year, $300 billion-plus tax relief plan to be unveiled in his Jan. 27 State of the Union speech.
The President initially proposed the so-called "USA accounts" in last year's address but made little progress because of quarrels with Republicans over Social Security and tax legislation. In the end, Social Security reform stalled, and the President signed a minor tax bill after vetoing a broader, nearly $800 billion GOP package.
Prospects for bipartisan cooperation on big legislation are usually dim in an election year, experts said Monday. "Politically, it is not very viable this year, partly because of the size of it," said Liz Liess, vice president and director of retirement policy for the Securities Industry Association. "We are glad they are raising the profile of the need to increase retirement savings, but philosophically it is far apart from where the Republican Congress is" and from alternatives preferred by industry.
But others said the dynamic could be different this year because of the mounting federal budget surplus.
"This is going to be a year where tax issues dominate the political debate in Washington," said Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Community Bankers of America. "There is a good chance for a meaningful tax cut to be enacted as our surplus position grows ever stronger."
That President Clinton tipped his hand on the issue so early shows a desire to compromise with House and Senate leaders, Mr. Guenther said. "The Republicans want a tax bill, and the President has indicated he is willing to open the door."
A spokesman for House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer agreed, noting that the President began easing his opposition to spending some of the surplus on tax cuts last year. He also said it would be difficult for Vice President Al Gore to oppose tax cuts during his presidential campaign. "As compared to last year, the prospect for significant tax relief for working families has improved," the Archer spokesman said.
A White House spokesman said Monday that officials are still fine-tuning the plan, but it is expected to mirror last year's. Under that plan, the federal government would have devoted about $40 billion annually from the surplus to establish USA accounts for more than 100 million Americans. For instance, a couple earning $40,000 would automatically receive $600 of tax credits each year in their USA accounts that could be converted to cash and invested in stocks, bonds, or a universal retirement plan similar to the Federal Thrift Retirement Plan.
Account holders could add to these accounts and receive government matching contributions based on their income levels. For example, lower-income taxpayers would receive a 100% match, but the government would kick in 50 cents for every dollar deposited by married couples earning between $40,000 and $100,000 and by single filers earning $20,000 to $50,000.
Among the issues in flux this year are government funding sources and whether to lower the size of the federal contributions and matches.
Industry officials said they would have to study the details before passing judgment.
"Anything that improves the likelihood that people will save is a good thing," said James Chessen, chief economist for the American Bankers Association, but he said industry experts will examine whether USA accounts are the best vehicle or if changes to individual retirement accounts or 401(k) investment plans would accomplish the same purpose.
Ms. Liess said the SIA favors other legislative proposals that are smaller in scope to start and that would not compete with existing retirement plans.