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Congress rejects Labor Dept. rule for state retirement plans

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pictured on May 2, 2017, on Capitol Hill, said that while the state-run retirement plans "might not seem too bad on the surface, what they really add up to is more government at the expense of the private sector and American workers." | Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

WASHINGTON — Congress has narrowly voted to overturn an Obama-era rule designed to guide states as they create retirement savings programs for low-income workers.

The Republican-led Senate voted 50-49 Wednesday to reject the Labor Department rule, sending the measure to President Donald Trump.

With an estimated 55 million Americans lacking access to retirement savings plans at their jobs, some Democratic-leaning states have been working to fill the void.

At least seven states, including Illinois, have launched programs requiring employers to automatically enroll workers in state-sponsored individual retirement accounts managed by investment professionals. The Obama administration gave states the green light last year.

In Illinois, a new state program called Secure Choice will give 1.3 million residents the opportunity to save for retirement — “a pragmatic solution to address a real world problem” that now is at risk, said Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill.

U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. | Scott Olson/Getty Images
U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

“Instead of encouraging greater competition that will help 55 million Americans save money for retirement, some of my colleagues appear to be listening to Wall Street lobbyists who want less competition and who want to take away a retirement savings option from people,” Duckworth said.

But congressional Republicans said the state programs discourage small businesses from offering private retirement plans and have inadequate safeguards.

While the state-run plans “might not seem too bad on the surface, what they really add up to is more government at the expense of the private sector and American workers,” said Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

The state plans would be exempt from federal protections that apply to private plans and would have a competitive advantage over private plans, McConnell said.

If the repeal measure is signed, states still will be able to set up retirement plans but must follow federal laws that protect the workers’ investments, McConnell said.

Two Republicans, Sens. Bob Corker of Tennessee and Todd Young of Indiana, joined Democrats in opposing the repeal measure.

The Senate voted to overturn the rule using the Congressional Review Act, a law that allows a simple majority in the House and Senate to overturn executive-branch regulations that lawmakers consider onerous or burdensome. Trump and congressional Republicans have overturned more than a dozen Obama-era regulations since Trump took office.

Democrats said the GOP measure would jeopardize efforts by states to help low-income workers.

States that have begun offering the plans include Illinois, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Oregon and Washington.

Americans are not “clamoring” for Congress to take away their ability to save for retirement if their company doesn’t offer a plan, said Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

Instead, Wall Street financial firms that manage retirement plans “don’t want to see any competition from city or state retirement plans,” Schumer said.

He called the GOP legislation “another giveaway to the wealthy special interests” that will hurt working Americans who need have more low-cost choices for their retirement.

California state Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon vowed that his state will continue its retirement program.

“We will place the future and well-being of our workers over Wall Street greed,” he said, promising that “Californians who have worked hard all their lives can retire at a reasonable age with a measure of dignity.”