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How tax reform affects retirement savings is of special interest to me, so I’m reviewing some of the proposals that have been put forth by various legislators since last summer.

What we know from previous tax reform efforts is that the deductibility and favorable treatment of retirement plans was successively undermined by the four tax reform bills enacted during the 1980s. To refresh your memory, they were TEFRA, DEFRA, REA and, finally, TRA in 1986. Sort of like Huey, Louie and Dewey — plus Donald.

All of those laws had adverse impacts on retirement savings opportunities by reducing what employees could contribute in one way or another. Reducing a tax deduction to people who are struggling to save for retirement is just too tempting a form of low-hanging fruit when Congress is searching for ways to reduce taxes for corporations and high-income taxpayers.

The $17 trillion already in retirement plans — thanks to the success of those plans — is considered to be plenty by some, so it makes sense to throttle back on what has been an amazingly beneficial accident in legislative history. No one predicted that voluntary employee savings programs sponsored by employers would ever set the stage for the level of financial security that these plans have created for more than half of America’s workforce.

We can thank President Ronald Reagan for his push to create “portable retirement plans” that people didn’t lose every time they changed jobs — a situation that plagued what had been the norm up until the advent of 401(k)s in 1980.

What’s trotted out as the rationale is sounding like a broken record: more jobs and a growing economy — if only we can reduce taxes. That actually worked once during the Kennedy administration, when the top marginal tax bracket was about 90 percent. Since then, any reduction in taxes has just led to an increase in the federal debt.

If you take that logic to the extreme, one could argue that reducing taxes to almost nothing would cause the economy to grow by leaps and bounds, generating additional tax revenue despite the grossly lower percentage rate. It’s an urban myth. Most of what companies spend to grow is already tax-deductible anyway — I never spent a dollar on new employees, more space or more capital equipment that didn’t generate a tax deduction for me.

The retirement plan proposals from various lawmakers come in all shapes and sizes. Three years ago, one from Dave Camp, then chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, aimed to place a cap on how much deductions — including 401(k) contributions — can reduce income tax liability.

Under Camp’s proposal, if your tax was $20,000 and your deductions reduced that by any more than 25 percent ($5,000 in this example), you would pay a 10 percent surtax on anything over $5,000 that you contributed to a 401(k). The same proposal sought to subject anything above half of the current 401(k) annual limit of $18,000 to Roth treatment, whereby anything over $9,000 would have to be treated as an after-tax contribution. Furthermore, the annual maximum contributions in every case would remain flat for 10 years, with no cost-of-living increases.

And so it goes in a desperate effort to cut taxes and grow the economy at a faster rate than population growth would dictate. Set aside the fact that the economy is hardly a wasteland, given its string of record corporate profits, surging stock markets and 5 percent unemployment rate.

A better way forward is to cut taxes simply by catching the unpatriotic that cheat the rest of us. The “gap” between what is collected and what is owed is about $400 billion annually. The annual deficit is about $500 billion. Collecting from citizens should become a serious objective of so-called “deficit hawks,” but instead, the IRS has had its enforcement and auditing staffs cut to the bone.

Middle-income workers have taxes withheld and file relatively simple returns, so there’s not much to look at there. Instead, the individuals and corporations with high incomes and complicated tax returns undoubtedly offer more productive low-hanging fruit.

Tax reform can wait until after Congress has pledged to start spending more on the IRS, where every dollar invested chips away $4 to $6 of that “gap.” This is just second-grade arithmetic that every member of Congress should be able to grasp.

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