THROUGH three presidencies we have urged the occupant of the Oval Office to do more to help average workers build their own pension and savings plans.
Now, finally, both the incumbent, Bill Clinton, and the challenger, Bob Dole, agree in general on the idea.
So that means bipartisan support for a new worker pension law, doesn't it? Alas, no.
More on that below. But first, the concept. The core idea is simple: (1) Make it easier for lots of small firms to provide simplified 401K pension plans for their employees, just the way big corporations with elaborate payroll departments do. (2) Make those pensions portable.
The reasoning behind the idea is just as simple:
1. Most of the job growth in America's amazing job-creation system has come from small firms.
2. Workers are increasingly bouncing around - losing jobs, and finding new ones in just such firms.
3. With Social Security likely to cover fewer retirement needs in future, worker pensions will be increasingly needed.
4. This is a terrific way for workers to discover the marvels of thrift and compounding. Each new pension accumulation slip shows how the money builds as yields compound. And each pay period shows what little dent in take-home pay the 401K saving makes, because it's tax shielded.
5. A bonus: 401K contributions are tax-deferred. This forces a useful discipline on Washington. It means a drop in tax revenues now, but a welcome growth in revenue when that will be more needed. That's when the population bulge of today reaches retirement age and begins withdrawing saved money and paying tax on it.
6. Bonus No. 2: Both Republican and Democrat plans allow withdrawal before retirement age for health emergencies, downpayment on a house, or education. That would help to counterbalance the effects of potential federal cutbacks in those areas.
There's one major drawback: a Clinton cave-in to a bad GOP plan allowing an unfair $100,00 annual tax-shielded loophole for certain executives and self-employed professionals.
That aside, the virtues of a simplified employee pension plan reaching new millions of Americans should place it on a par with motherhood and the V-chip. Surely, with such opposites as liberal Labor Secretary Robert Reich and conservative Ways and Means Committee chairman Bill Archer (not to mention Messrs. Clinton and Dole) in support, legislation will fly forward this year?
Apparently not. And the not very well-disguised reason is that each side wants ownership of the issue in this election year. Republicans in Congress made the basic proposals first (even though GOP presidents Reagan and Bush had done nothing about it). And now President Clinton has belatedly listened to Mr. Reich and appropriated the GOP plan for his campaign.
All right, guys. For the good of the nation, let's call it a tie. Make it a Clinton and Dole proposal. Neutralize it as a campaign issue, and get on with passing and signing some legislation. That's the least both can do for average Americans who work hard and want to save by the rules.