Simplifying the federal tax code is long overdue.

But Congress won’t accomplish that goal by increasing taxes on retirement savings.

Wisconsin’s two U.S. senators are right: Our leaders in Washington should reject any proposal that hikes taxes on 401(k) contributions.

U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Oshkosh, correctly noted last week that Social Security is already facing a major shortfall in funding by 2034, as the ranks of retirees continue to grow. So doing anything that might discourage workers from saving money on their own would be a mistake.

Johnson said last week he “wouldn’t touch” 401(k) plans as Congress considers changes as part of a larger tax code overhaul.

“This would be the worst time to dis-incentivize people from saving for their retirement,” Johnson said.

He’s right.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, who leads the House Ways and Means Committee, confirmed Wednesday he’s considering changes to 401(k) plans and other retirement accounts as part of a sweeping tax reform bill he’s close to unveiling.

News reports suggest Brady and his Republican colleagues who run Congress are considering a plan to sharply reduce the amount of tax-deferred income American workers can put in 401(k) accounts. The accounts delay taxation until retirement—when presumably rates will be lower—and often include a contribution from employers.

Instead of workers putting as much as $18,500 tax-free into their 401(k) accounts next year—with workers age 50 and older allowed to save as much as $24,000—the GOP tax bill could dramatically reduce the allowable amount to just $2,400 annually.

Given a chance to dismiss this bad idea, House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, wouldn’t rule out such a move last week as part of his party’s larger tax package. That’s disappointing.

Republican President Donald Trump initially and emphatically tweeted Monday that no changes will occur to 401(k)s. He even typed the word “NO” in all capital letters and used an exclamation point. But as often occurs with the erratic and untrustworthy president, his conviction didn’t last long. By Wednesday, he was saying he didn’t want the change to “go too far,” and that “maybe we’ll use it as negotiating.”

Johnson’s opposition is significant because the GOP Senate has few votes to spare, and Johnson has shown a lot more backbone on fiscal issues than Trump.

Moreover, opposition to scaling back retirement incentives for some 50 million Americans is bipartisan.

U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, and others quickly opposed talk of dismantling the 401(k) system.

“The idea from Republicans to make it more expensive for Wisconsinites to save for retirement as a way to help pay for tax cuts for the top one percent is a bad deal,” Baldwin said.

She’s right that Trump and his party’s desire for a large tax cut shouldn’t be accomplished by taxing people more for saving money. Nor should it come at the risk of increasing the national debt.

The goal of tax reform should be to simplify a convoluted and unfair system. Ryan and the GOP-controlled Congress should leave middle-class 401(k) plans alone.

—Wisconsin State Journal

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