March 8, 2011

Sen. Harkin Says Govt. Shutdown Possible; Calls for Year-Long CR

Chair of Senate HELP Committee also wants a universal retirement system; Treasury official calls for automatic IRA

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As the Senate readied to vote Tuesday on competing Democratic and GOP bills to fund the government for the remainder of the year, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee and a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the same day that lawmakers “are tied in knots” over how to resolve their budget differences, and that there is a “real possibility” that the nation could see a government shutdown in the next week.

Neither bill is expected to garner the 60 votes needed to advance the bills when the Senate was to vote on Tuesday afternoon.

Harkin, who was speaking at the National Institute on Retirement Security’s (NIRS) policy conference in Washington, told AdvisorOne after his prepared remarks that he’d like to see a continuing resolution (CR) “at last year’s level” to fund the government until year-end, so lawmakers can focus on crafting “a budget for next year.” When asked to elaborate on his comments that he believed a government shutdown looked imminent, he said that he “just didn’t know” if there would be a government shutdown. 

As for the fight over Social Security, Harkin said that Social Security “does not belong in the long-term budget discussion,” and that it is important to “counter the scare tactics” being used by those who want to “dismantle it.” While he conceded that “changes” need to be made to Social Security, he said that the program, which is funded by FICA taxes, has not added to the federal deficit.

Harkin said his goal as the HELP Committee’s chair is to continue to hold hearings throughout the year to “take a fresh look” at the nation’s retirement planning “crisis”. The current employer-based system, Harkin said, needs to be replaced with a “comprehensive retirement system for all.”

This “national” retirement system, he said, should be:

  • Universal and automatic
  • Provide Americans with security, just as Social Security has
  • A system of shared responsibility among the government, employers and employees
  • A system where the retirement dollars are managed by professionals who are “fiduciaries.”

If enacted, the automatic IRA--which was proposed in legislation during the last Congress and will likely be reintroduced in this Congress—would produce a “breakthrough in coverage” for those workers who lack a retirement plan at work, said J. Mark Iwry, senior advisor to the Secretary and Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Treasury, in remarks at the NIRS conference.

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