Trump Will Protect Your 401(K)... Or Maybe Not

[ Posted Wednesday, October 25th, 2017 – 17:45 UTC ]

Republicans are playing a game of peek-a-boo on their tax plan. They don't want to release the full details, because they know full well this will leave them open to attack from both the left ("Not one penny more for the One Percent!") and from the right ("Why are we blowing up the deficit, now that we're in charge?"). But the congressional Republicans who are in charge of drafting the tax bills do still need to gauge support for various proposals, so they are currently engaged in selective leaking in order to run these ideas up the old political flagpole, to see if they are salutable or not (so to speak) among their members. The latest of these is to sharply reduce the amount of tax-free income that can be socked away in a 401(k) retirement plan. President Donald Trump initially pushed back hard against this idea, but today indicated that he might just be open to negotiation on the issue. Which begs a much larger question: Will Trump actually go to the mat fighting for any particular tax issue? Or will Republicans just flat-out ignore the White House, knowing full well Trump is so desperate to sign a major piece of legislation that he'll agree to pretty much anything they come up with?

Republicans have a problem with their tax-cutting plan. The problem is it is so heavily weighted to deliver a bonanza of benefits to both businesses and the top income brackets that it would -- if confined just to tax cuts -- blow an enormous multi-trillion-dollar hole in the budget for the next decade. They are currently in the process of laying down a marker to restrict this deficit spending to only blow a $1.5 trillion hole in the budget. Any tax-cutting bill will have to keep within this constraint in order to be passed in the Senate with only 51 votes. Which means Republicans are looking around for what they call "pay-fors" -- tweaks to the tax code to raise some of the revenue lost by sending something like 80 percent of the tax cuts to businesses and the wealthy.

What this means in practical terms is soaking the middle class and upper-middle class in order to do things like abolishing the estate tax and the alternative minimum tax (both of which hit the One Percent almost exclusively). Their first idea was to get rid of the deduction for state and local income taxes. This is already getting some pushback, because (surprise, surprise!) there are actually a lot of Republican House districts where the constituents like the state income tax deduction. It's not as partisan an issue as the bill's drafters initially thought, in other words.

So they turned to the deduction for 401(k)s instead. This, again, would largely impact the middle class, and the upper-middle class, who are the ones who utilize this exemption the most. Over the past half-century, American businesses have successfully moved away (except in the few sectors still unionized) from "defined benefit" retirement plans to the "defined contribution" individual retirement plans (IRAs and 401(k)s, for the most part).

These plans are very popular, it bears mentioning. Republicans mess with this issue at their peril, in other words. Trump seemed to grasp this when, earlier this week, he tweeted out: "There will be NO change to your 401(k). This has always been a great and popular middle class tax break that works, and it stays!"

Now, in normal times, with a normal president, that might have shut the issue down cold. Republicans in Congress would have seen this as a bright red line being issued from the Oval Office, and would have immediately backed off the concept. These, however, are anything but normal times.

Which is where the question of Trump's effectiveness truly comes into play. This, after all, is the first big bill where Trump has shown any real interest in the details. He didn't care what was in any of the "repeal and replace Obamacare" bills, and he never engaged in any negotiations with the people in Congress writing such bills. This time, though, the White House is involving itself in the haggling. But, as Trump's foray into the 401(k) issue shows, congressional Republicans might not be paying much attention, since they know that Trump can always change his mind (he does so on a regular basis) and, again, that the chances are good that he'll sign anything they put in front of him. So why bother negotiating?

The Washington Post helpfully laid out the timeline:

Just a few hours ago, President Trump told reporters at the White House that the popular 401(k) tax break just might be up for negotiation as part of tax reform, after all.

What a difference 48 hours makes.

On Monday, Trump tweeted that there would be "NO change to your 401(k)," as a result of the tax reform proposals now working their way through Congress. How seriously did congressional Republican leaders take this? Not too seriously! On Wednesday morning, House Ways and Committee Chair Kevin Brady (R-Texas) told a Christian Science Monitor breakfast this might not be so. "We are continuing discussions with the president, all focused on saving more and saving sooner," he said.

Now Trump has agreed. When asked Wednesday afternoon if the 401(k) was up for grabs, he responded, "Maybe it is and maybe we'll use it as negotiating."

Is your head spinning? It should be.

Republicans already know that any tax plan they come up with is going to be attacked. They even know precisely what their opponents are going to say about it -- that it screws the poor and middle class at the expense of generous tax breaks to the ultra-wealthy. They are reportedly trying to somewhat blunt these accusations by concentrating their tax cuts more on the middle class, but that may all just prove to be spin in the end (we'll see, when the final plan is publicly released and analyzed, in other words).

If they truly did want to achieve what they say they do (slashing tax rates on businesses, and cutting taxes for the middle class and not the wealthy), there are some very easy ways to achieve this goal. My guess is that none of them will ever be proposed by the GOP tax-cutting committees on Capitol Hill.

The biggest transfer of wealth in the current GOP plans is to shower benefits on corporations, while making everyone else pay for it. This is obvious on the face of it, because in all the tax debating going on, I have yet to hear a single Republican offer a single business loophole that they will be closing. "We're lowering rates by closing loopholes" is their talking point, but when you look closely, they are mostly lowering corporate rates by closing what they call "loopholes" on individual income taxes. That is seriously unbalanced. Trump even campaigned heavily on closing one particular business loophole -- the "carried interest" loophole used by hedge fund managers. So far, Republicans in Congress haven't even mentioned the issue, making it likely this loophole will remain. This allows financial services bigwigs to pay roughly half the tax any other worker in American would pay on their income. Trump promised he'd close this egregious loophole, but Republicans don't seem inclined to do so. And if they don't even have the stomach for reining this abusive practice in, it's a pretty good bet that all the other huge business loopholes will emerge unscathed as well.

But the most obvious example of the difference between reality and Republican spin on taxes is that there is indeed a mechanism for limiting wealthy tax filers' deductions. If Republicans were honestly trying to target all the benefits of their tax-cutting on individuals to the middle class (or even the upper-middle class), then all they would have to do is to phase out all deductions above a certain amount of income. This would, in effect, create a "maximum allowable deduction level" which, after it was reached, would limit any other tax writeoffs above that amount.

This, as I said, already exists within the tax code. It is called the alternative minimum tax, and one of the big agenda items Republicans have announced is not to beef this mechanism up (to insure that all the tax-cutting benefits go to the non-wealthy), but to totally eliminate the tax. As I've been pointing out for a while now, this one change to the tax code would shrink Donald Trump's taxes by an astounding 81 percent.

So don't believe the spin. Republicans are considering limiting what average families can contribute to their 401(k)s precisely so they can give people in Trump's income bracket an enormous tax cut each and every year. You won't be able to save as much for retirement tax-free, because we have to slash Trump's taxes to the tune of four out of every five dollars he is supposed to currently pay. That is something Democrats need to keep in mind, in the upcoming debates.

-- Chris Weigant


Cross-posted at The Huffington Post

Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


19 Comments on “Trump Will Protect Your 401(K)... Or Maybe Not”

  1. [1] 
    neilm wrote:

    Sadly, I do't think enough people care to stop them. They have the levers of power, they are playing games with absurd proposals that they can back off from so nobody is looking at the real goal - the elimination of the AMT and the Estate Tax.

    Even the Corporate tax rate is a red herring.

  2. [2] 
    Kick wrote:

    CW: Trump even campaigned heavily on closing one particular business loophole -- the "carried interest" loophole used by hedge fund managers.

    But, but, but... Robert Mercer... hedge fund billionaire. Trump is his "voice."

  3. [3] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:


    I seem to recall some prominent Dem senator (may have been LBJ, not sure) said often that everybody's philosophy on taxation can be epitomized by the old jingle, "Don't tax you, don't tax me, tax that guy over there behind the tree!"

    You should have that tattooed on your forehead.

  4. [4] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Don H

    OK, sorry if I misread you.

  5. [5] 
    TheStig wrote:

    I had bit of trouble getting traction with this column. It's a good column, but the image of Donald Trump going to the mat is very off putting...due to my memories of what a wrestling mat looks,feels and smells like after the big fat kid has "gone to it" a few times. Add to that the imagery conjured up by words like "soaking" and "leaking" and it's hard to press on.

    After I desensitized enough to get thru the first few paragraphs, I have to admit this column does go a long way to explaining why Trump and the Republican Congress just can't quit each other.

    Trump is gal who can't say no and is in terrible fix. I don't think he expected win the White House AND a special prosecutor. Neither did Republicans, but now that Trump has won, they need to give their white nationalist base a legislative victory on something or face some pretty awful primary battles. On the other hand, the Trump base can't write the big checks so useful in a fast approaching mid term election.

    Trump and the Republican Party are quickie marriage that is taking an awfully long time to consummate.

  6. [6] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Neil [2] is exactly right. As one pundit pointed out last night, the GOP is to some extent 'reverse engineering' this bill, beginning with reducing taxes for the wealthy and corporate class, and then working backwards through the tax code to see what deductions they can strip away to make it happen.

    Moreover, because they realize that there's nothing that the Democrats can really do to stop them legislatively, and aware that they're unlikely to still be holding both the house and senate after the midterms next year, their play here, they reckon, is to cram as many tax cuts into this bill as possible, and appease the deficit hawks by promising to put them in charge when it comes time to write the budget, at which point they can assert that it's actually the Democrats who are creating deficits by refusing to slash safety net programs and pet projects.

    This is so cynical, it ought to be called the "Cartman Plan".

  7. [7] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    And by that reasoning, that $1.5 trillion hole in the budget is a feature, not a bug.

    That's how cynical this is.

  8. [8] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:


    It isn't possible to reduce (income) taxes for anybody BUT "The wealthy and corporate class". Under our present system, the rest of us don't pay enough income taxes to be worth mentioning! (A tad over 2% of all taxes collected, according to the IRS website.)

    You should just say you favor NO tax cuts whatsoever, like everybody else who gets more back than they contribute.

  9. [9] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Don H

    I freely admit that even we poor folks pay all kinds of taxes besides income taxes, but I like to differentiate those for the purposes of political discussion, because, unlike income taxes, all those other taxes pretty much come back to those who pay them. We all send our kids to public school, we all drive on the public roads, we all qualify for social security, etc.

    Income taxes on the other hand, often wind up as simple transfers of the fruits of the labors of productive folks to less productive folks.

    And not to imply that I or most other right-leaning people are totally against welfare-type socialism, but we likely prefer less of such than the lefties do.

  10. [10] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Don H

    I suspect that your definition of "the shortcomings of our system" would distill down to how the marketplace rewards work. I've previously expounded on that "shortcoming" when I described how the marketplace values skill, talent, effort, etc based pretty much on the single criterion of how abundant, or maybe how prevalent, the particular skill is in the world.

    My oldest son works for the local municipal water dept. He and his colleagues are responsible for the fact that when you open your faucet, water comes out, and that has to be awful damn high on the list of things essential to our welfare.

    My youngest works for Apple, and I don't have the slightest idea what he does, in fact when his old classmates ask me about him I often say I think he's in the 'fruit business'. But whatever it is he does, seems to be worth a large multiple of what his brother earns.

    I don't even have an iPhone, and I have to call my grandkids to get my computer running to have these conversations, so the water thing is FAR more important to me than designing electronic playthings, but obviously, the marketplace disagrees.

    It definitely ain't 'fair', but is is how the real world works, and it is NOT a case of the rich and powerful (aka the "system") cheating the poor and powerless!!

  11. [11] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    Don [18] Even if the Democrats could stop the Republicans, they wouldn't...the red herrings are there as cover for the Democrats to pretend to oppose what the Republicans are trying to accomplish.

    So I guess they'll be 'pretending' not to vote for it?

    If you want to see 'pretending', look to Corker and Flake who said they'd oppose Trump, but then voted last night for a bill that blocks consumers' right to sue banks - what Elizabeth Warren called "a big wet kiss for Wall Street". Every Democrat in the Senate voted against that, by the way: again, their way of 'pretending' to be against it.

  12. [12] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    CR [19]Income taxes on the other hand, often wind up as simple transfers of the fruits of the labors of productive folks to less productive folks.

    That's the GOP line, but the truth is,that's just not true, unless you assume that 'productive folks' don't benefit from such things as national defense or food inspection.

    According to the non-partisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), nearly three-fifths of the amount spent on healthcare ($594 billion in 2016) goes to Medicare, which provides health coverage to around 57 million people who are over age 65 or have disabilities. In a typical month, the other two-fifths, Medicaid and CHIP, provide health care or long-term care to another 74 million low-income children, parents, elderly people, and people with disabilities.

    While you might define the elderly, disabled, and underage poor as 'unproductive', it's certainly uncharitable to do so as most of those folks would be happy to be 'productive' if they were young enough, healthy enough, or old enough to do so.

    Moreover, in the absence of government assistance, the burden of paying for the elderly and disabled in particular would fall on the shoulders of working relatives (if they're lucky enough to have any) or already-burdened State programs, ultimately making life much tougher for 'productive folks' than it already is.

    So, while rightie pundits will often portray these 'simple transfers of wealth' in (often literally) black and white terms, the plain truth is that most government spending benefits 'productive folks' as much as anyone else, by lifting these burdens from their shoulders.

    "Corporate welfare", on the other hand, in the form of taxes dodged by contractual entities that could (and should) pay more, contributes more to the middle class tax burden than all of that combined. 27 companies in the Standard & Poor's 500 paid no taxes last year, including General Electric and the drug giant Pfizer, which added insult to financial injury by moving their corporate headquarters to Ireland, thus dodging US taxes altogether.

    It's their mess, by the way, that Trump announced the country would spend billions of dollars to clean up today.

  13. [13] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Don H -

    Re "Wage gouging". Any employee who believes that his employer is paying him less than the actual market value of his contribution to the output of the enterprise in question, has an obligation to offer his time and talent to other employers.

    If he actually is being "gouged", he will find a job that pays him the actual market value of his time and talent. If it turns out that he is unable to find a (comparable) job that pays what he thinks his efforts are worth, then by definition, he was NOT being "gouged". Law of economics.

    Also in regards to the principle involved in the question of "wage gouging", it's important to remember that nobody has any obligation to provide anybody with a job. Those who create jobs are free to offer wages amounting to less than the fair market value of what the employee produces. We have to rely on competition to keep employers 'honest', and the system usually works fairly well.

  14. [14] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:


    Obviously, everybody benefits from national defense, food inspection, etc., nobody would ever deny that. And also obviously, everybody benefits pretty much in equal measure, but everybody doesn't pay equally for those universal services. The USDA doesn't perform any more inspections for the rich than they do for the poor, but the rich pay for pretty much all of the expenses of it, while the poor get a free ride, right?

    And re "corporate welfare", do you really believe that the IRS allows GE to avoid paying taxes that they legally owe?

    When the housing bubble burst and millions of borrowers defaulted on the mortgages they had taken out in hopes the price of their houses would continue to go up forever, the finance division of GE lost $billions. The company is entitled to write off those losses against future profits. That's the way the system works, and it's NOT "corporate welfare".

  15. [15] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Don H

    Yeah, I DID "really mean to say that". However, I never said it was "OK", I never said it was "right", I only said it was LEGAL, and that it was the way the real world functions. You or I would be perfectly free to set up a company to manufacture electronic gadgets, for which we would be perfectly free to try to hire electrical engineers at minimum wage.

    Chances are, we wouldn't get any applicants, but that would be due only to the competition of other employers for those engineer's services, and NOT because it would be illegal, immoral or even fattening, as the old joke used to go.

    You're seemingly unable to distinguish between "fair", "legal", "ethical", etc. And capitalism DOES work, at least to the extent of providing the highest standard of living for the most people the world has ever seen, in spite of all its faults.

  16. [16] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    CR : This is from a March 24, 2011 NY Times article entitled G.E.’s Strategies Let It Avoid Taxes Altogether:

    "That may be hard to fathom for the millions of American business owners and households now preparing their own returns, but low taxes are nothing new for G.E. The company has been cutting the percentage of its American profits paid to the Internal Revenue Service for years, resulting in a far lower rate than at most multinational companies."

    "Its extraordinary success is based on an aggressive strategy that mixes fierce lobbying for tax breaks and innovative accounting that enables it to concentrate its profits offshore." you really believe that the IRS allows GE to avoid paying taxes that they legally owe?

    Yep. It's called "my lawyers have a bigger war chest than your lawyers", and it happens all the time with corporations, which have been provided plenty of legal ways to skip out by corporate-friendly congresses.

    ...everybody benefits pretty much in equal measure, but everybody doesn't pay equally for those universal services

    You're right: lower paid workers pay a higher percentage of their wages in taxes than the rich, and sales taxes and other fees grab a far bigger chunk of their take-home pay.

    It is also well known that capital gains - which can often be a sole or major source of income for the Wall Street rich, are taxed at a much lower rate than other income.

    Famously, Warren Buffet discovered by accident one day that his secretary paid a much higher tax rate than he did. This produced the "Buffet Rule" and is still the best argument for retaining the Alternative Minimum Tax, which is the only part of the tax code preventing the super rich from also doing what General Electric does (the AMT accounted for 81% of Trump's taxes in 2005).

  17. [17] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:


    OK, I don't have any problem believing that GE (along with every other business and along with me and YOU) does everything they can possibly do to minimize their tax liability. They have an obligation to their shareholders to do so. Why is it immoral for them but not for you and me???

    However, if it turns out that I'm in error in including you in the group of tax minimizers, and you tell me that you actually pay taxes to any level of government in excess of the statutory minimum, you will have my prompt apology along with my heartfelt congratulations for being such a good person.

    However, be forewarned that I will also point out the undeniable fact that you are monumentally stupid for doing so.

    (And feel free to point out that I obviously am NOT a 'good person', at least in that sense.)

  18. [18] 
    Balthasar wrote:

    CR: You're a good enough person, I'm sure.

    But you've shifted the goalposts with you last comment. Initially, your statement was that income taxes were mostly simple transfers of the fruits of the labors of productive folks to less productive folks, and I've spent some serious time convincing you that that isn't true.

    Further, you wrote, regarding government, that the rich pay for pretty much all of the expenses of it, while the poor get a free ride, and that regarding Corporate Welfare, and G.E.'s extraordinarily low tax rate, that the reason for that was that the finance division of GE lost $billions..[and] entitled to write off those losses against future profits, adding, That's the way the system works, and it's NOT "corporate welfare".

    My answer at [30] answers that. I demonstrated that G.E.'s ability to pay no taxes at all in 2015 wasn't a result of the financial crisis, but the culmination of a corporate tax strategy which included "fierce lobbying for tax breaks and innovative accounting that enables it to concentrate its profits offshore". You and I could do neither of those things, and G.E.'s ability to do so is pretty much the textbook definition of Corporate welfare. Your response, Why is it immoral for them but not for you and me? is answered therein: because they can and we (and many smaller business) can't. I don't blame G.E. for their "aggressive" tax policy, I blame Congress for letting them and Corporate entities like them get away with tax evasion, for which ordinary people like you and me do jail time.
    Same goes for offshoring, a favorite way for both multinationals and the filthy rich (like Romney, for instance) to 'hide' money from the IRS. While it may be perfectly legal for them to do so, if I were to fail to report taxable income from the IRS, or conspired to otherwise 'hide' it, I might be end up spending time with a big fella with face tattoos at Uncle Sam's expense. We're all Americans with US addresses, but I don't make large sums of money overseas and they do, and according to Congress, that allows them to do what you or I can't.

    There are hundreds, if not thousands, of other big and small giveaways to businesses and corporations written into the tax code, ranging from the absurdly specific to the very general. You and I, for instance, can't write off depreciation on our televisions, cellphones and living room furniture, but they can.

    So it's all far more complicated than a "simple transfer of wealth" from rich to poor, since the wealthy and powerful can avoid most (or all) of it, and the poor and middle classes cannot. And it gets worse and not better when you start passing out 'simplified' tax forms that don't provide for any deductions at all, while big businesses and billionaires hire entire firms to calculate their taxes down to a pittance. It's not a question of good v. bad, it's a question of fact v. fiction.

  19. [19] 
    C. R. Stucki wrote:

    Balthasar -

    We have differences that can't be reconciled. Better just agree to disagree.

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