For a few brief moments Thursday afternoon, it appeared as though the White House might be targeting your 401(k)s.
Asked whether deductions for retirement savings would remain intact in its new tax reform package, White House press secretary Sean Spicer seemed to say no. “The current plan right now protects both charitable giving and mortgage interest, and that’s it,” Spicer said, conspicuously leaving out those retirement savings.
That echoed what Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said earlier on Fox News: “As a matter of fact, we are taking all deductions out other than mortgage interest and charitable donations.”
It turns out the White House isn't going to actually do this. But it does show what a nightmare passing tax reform will probably be.
Shortly after the briefing, NBC's Peter Alexander received the clarification.
NEW: White House clarifies: 401K retirement savings plans would not be impacted by Trump's tax proposal.
— Peter Alexander (@PeterAlexander) April 27, 2017
That sound you heard was the collective sigh of relief of about half the country — 54 percent of the workforce, to be exact. That's the portion of workers who participate in retirement benefits programs, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That's a huge portion of the population and electorate that would have had a very real and rude awakening if the White House had, in fact, gotten rid of their ability to make pretax contributions for their retirements.
And I and others were skeptical that the White House would actually go down this road — even after it appeared Spicer had. It's difficult to imagine worse optics than taking away people's 401(k)s while lowering the marginal tax rate for wealthy Americans and corporations.
There is just no way the White House is actually going after 401(k)s. That's a death wish.
— Aaron Blake (@AaronBlake) April 27, 2017
But even if 401(k)s are safe, the White House is still looking to slash all kinds of deductions that matter hugely to very specific demographics and areas. While targeting the 401(k)s would have alienated a very large portion of the entire population in one fell swoop, there will be more targeted bloodletting with the deductions that are cut.
Rep. Leonard Lance (R-N.J.) was one of the first House members to weigh in on the package Thursday morning, pointing to a specific deduction that benefits his New Jersey constituents.
“One provision I oppose is the elimination of the state and local tax deduction,” Lance said. “New Jersey taxpayers would lose under that plan. I will be a leading voice in negotiations for maintaining that deduction.”
That's a little window into what lies ahead. Members with very specific constituencies will not want their preferred deductions to be targeted, and the White House will not be able to accommodate all of them. In the end, many of these members will be faced with voting for something that could prove very unpopular when it comes to the taxes and pocketbooks of their constituents.
Whether it's 401(k)s or something else, there will be plenty for members to hate. That's why large-scale tax reform hasn't been accomplished in three decades.