A so-called “Gang of Eight” U.S. senators, four democrats and four republicans, last week unveiled comprehensive immigration reform legislation that would among other things create a “path to citizenship” for some 11 million illegal immigrants.
The bipartisan measure, a top domestic priority for President Obama, represents Congress’s first major attempt to address the issue of illegal immigration since 2007.
According to a Wall Street Journal summary, the bill, formally named the “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act,” has six pillars:
1. Border Security: Recognizing that according legal status to the 11 million undocumented individuals now in the U.S. could spur new waves of illegal aliens, the bill would direct the Department of Homeland Security, which has jurisdiction over immigration, to submit a plan to apprehend or deter 90% of the people who attempt to enter the country illegally. Sponsors of the legislation advocate a new border security system of drones, electronic fences and state-of-the-art surveillance.
2. Provisional Legal Status: If the bill becomes law, illegal immigrants who have lived in the U.S. since December 31, 2011 would be able to register for “provisional legal status,” a first-step category that would allow them to legally work for any employer.
To qualify for provisional status immigrants would be required to pay a fine expected to be between $500 and $1,000; pay any back taxes; learn English; and submit to a criminal background check. While those who earn provisional status would not be eligible for federal benefit programs, they effectively would become legal immigrants.
3. Permanent Resident Status: After a provisional status period of ten years, and declaration by the secretary of Homeland Security that new border control systems have effectively stopped illegal entry, most of the 11 million people who had been illegal immigrants could apply for permanent legal residence—in other words, “green card” status. These individuals would need to “go to the end of the line” of applicants for green card status.
4. Citizenship: Three years after having permanent residence, i.e., a full thirteen years after attaining provisional legal status, immigrants could apply for U.S. citizenship.
Thus, the proposed legislation envisions a long and winding pathway to citizenship, including a relatively long period of provisional legal status and border security measures before immigrants could even apply for permanent residency. The path would be smoother for persons brought to the U.S. as children, so-called “Dream Act” young people, who would have an accelerated path to green cards and citizenship.
5. New Visa Programs: The bipartisan legislation would also create a new guest-worker “W” visa specifically for low-skilled workers in high-demand occupations, starting with 20,000 such visas in 2015. There would also be a reconstituted H-1B visa program for highly skilled engineers and computer programmers, increasing the number from 65,000 to 110,000. Incidentally, this year’s limit was reached in the first week that companies were allowed to apply. The bill also contemplates certain changes to the current family visa program.
6. Mandatory E-Verify: If the new bill becomes law, all employers would be required to implement the federal E-Verify program after a five year phase-in period. E-Verify is essentially an Internet-based system administered by the Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration that allows employers to verify the work eligibility of new hires.
To be sure, introduction of legislation, even on a bipartisan basis, is only step one in an arduous process of a bill becoming law—especially in today’s hyper-political Washington DC environment. What makes this time different, however, is that comprehensive immigration reform enjoys widespread support, including from many business and labor organizations.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, for example, has co-founded a new group that supports immigration reform—FWD.us. And recent polls put public support in the 70% range.
After the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act is formally introduced in the U.S. Senate the next step will be hearings on the bill in the Senate Judiciary Committee. With strong support from President Obama and democrats in majority control the bill is expected to win committee approval. Then it will go to the Senate floor possibly as early as this summer, with votes on amendments expected. The legislation could receive more than the 60-vote minimum needed to overcome parliamentary delaying tactics.
Assuming the Senate approves the bill it will then be referred to the House of Representatives, where republicans are in the majority. The outlook in the House remains uncertain, with some members expressing reservations about ultimately granting “citizenship,” as opposed to legal status, to illegal immigrants. Some observers expect that the House will amend but not kill the legislation.
At this early stage it’s impossible to predict whether comprehensive immigration reform legislation including a path to citizenship will become the law of the land this year. It is possible to say that the odds favor doing something to fix the nation’s obviously broken immigration system and create some new form of status that would allow the 11 million “unauthorized” people who are already here to live and work legally in the U.S.
At long last the first day of Spring has arrived, on Wednesday, March 20 to be exact, with the vernal equinox at 7:02 AM Eastern Time. The first day of Spring calls forth images of sunny days, warm afternoons, March Madness, baseball, flowers and the promise of new beginnings.
But this week’s Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) report on its 2013 retirement confidence survey confirms that a “vernal equinox” may be needed for a new beginning to address America’s retirement savings crisis.
A few highlights of the EBRI report:
- Almost half of all U.S. workers are not confident they will have saved enough money for a comfortable retirement.
- Retirement savings “may be taking a back seat to more immediate financial concerns”—only 2 percent of workers identify retirement savings as their most pressing financial issue.
- Less than a quarter of workers, says EBRI, have obtained financial advice from a personal financial advisor.
- Two-thirds of workers report that they have saved for retirement—down from 75 percent three years ago. In other words, fewer of us are saving anything for retirement.
- Perhaps most ominous, EBRI reports that well over half of all workers say they and/or their spouse have less than $25,000 in total savings and investments—not counting their house and any defined benefit plans. Almost 30 percent of workers have saved less than $1,000 for retirement.
- Many workers have simply decided that they will postpone retirement. EBRI reports that over one-third of workers expect to wait until after age 65 to retire, up from 11 percent twenty-odd years ago. Only 23 percent now say they will retire before age 65.
The Wall Street Journal dissected the EBRI report and concluded that, “Workers and employers are bracing for a retirement crisis…that powerful financial and demographic forces are combining to squeeze individuals and companies that are trying to save for the future and make their money last.”
One of the drivers of America’s retirement crisis, experts say, is a lack of knowledge about how important it is to save for retirement. EBRI reports that more than half the workers in its survey haven’t completed a retirement needs calculation—“a basic planning step” to determine how much they will need in retirement.
To be sure, a key factor is the changing availability of employer-sponsored retirement plans. Not only has there been a tectonic shift in recent decades from traditional defined benefit-type plans to defined contribution, 401(k)-type plans, but almost half of all workers aren’t offered any kind of workplace retirement savings plan.
No doubt another contributing factor to the under-saving crisis is the assumption by some workers that their future Social Security benefits will finance their retirement which, of course, flows from point one above about the lack of knowledge generally about retirement issues.
What can be done to boost retirement savings?
First and foremost, a “full court press,” to use a March Madness term, to educate workers in all occupations and in all regions, to take a serious look at their retirement savings strategies. Knowledge is power, the saying goes, and realistic information about retirement income needs can be a powerful motivator.
Employers can and do play an essential role, not only with ongoing employee communications but also with employer 401(k) matching arrangements, a big incentive for worker retirement savings.
On the public policy front, expect two initiatives from the Obama Administration to encourage worker savings for retirement: One, a push for legislation to require employers that presently do not offer any retirement plans to create “Auto-IRAs” for workers. These would be modest automatic deductions from workers’ pay for Individual Retirement Accounts, subject of course to worker opt-out. It’s not clear that Congress would approve Auto-IRA legislation.
Two, consideration of legislation to change the tax policy that applies to retirement savings, possibly in connection with tax reform. Some have argued that present law pre-tax treatment of contributions to retirement plans favors higher wage workers. One option on the table would create a new tax credit for retirement savings that would be the same amount regardless of pay.
But at the end of the day saving for retirement will remain an individual or family responsibility. Social Security and public policy can supplement but will never be able to substitute for personal retirement savings and financial security.
While “crisis” is an over-used word these days, particularly in Washington DC, the reality is that far too many Americans are unprepared for retirement. As we anticipate Spring and all the renewal that comes with it, let’s hope that families, employers, non-profits and governments at all levels will make a new national commitment to promote retirement savings.
It’s often said that our elected officials in Washington DC have a way with words. Fiscal cliff, filibuster, earmarks and unanimous consent immediately come to mind.
Now they have come up with a word that’s destined for the Congressional linguistic obscurity hall of fame: “sequestration.”
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines it as “a legal writ authorizing a sheriff to take into custody the property of a defendant—or to take possession of property in a dispute to await the order of the court as to who is entitled.”
The word “sequester” itself is derived from the Latin sequestrare, meaning to “place in safekeeping.”
Sequestration first appeared in U.S. budgetary parlance in 1985, when senators and representatives decided that the U.S. Treasury should “sequester,” or withhold from spending, any funds appropriated in excess of budget resolution spending limits. In other words, to cancel budget authority with automatic spending cuts as a way of forcing cuts in budget deficits.
The “S-word” resurfaced during negotiations that led to the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA). Republicans and democrats unanimously recognized the need to reduce the government’s annual $1 trillion federal budget deficits (Washington borrows 30 cents of every dollar it spends—much of it from abroad, including from China). But they stalemated on a specific plan, with republicans generally opposing raising taxes and democrats generally opposing cutting spending.
The BCA created a special Congressional “super-committee” and charged it with responsibility to come up with a bipartisan plan for longer term deficit reduction. The 2011 law also provided that if the super-committee was unable to hammer out an agreement, a “sequestration” would take effect on January 2, 2013 and impose automatic federal spending cuts.
Specifically, the 2011 sequestration process calls for $1.2 trillion in spending cuts over a ten-year period, roughly $110 billion a year, with half coming from national defense spending and half from various domestic discretionary programs. Federal entitlement programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were exempted from sequestration.
Thus, federal programs like aid to education, farm subsidies, foreign aid, job training, the National Park Service, community development block grants to states, etc., would face sharp cuts in their funding—indeed much deeper proportionate cuts than if the entitlements had not been spared.
To the surprise of few, the super-committee was unable to reach an election year budget reduction compromise, so the sequestration clock began ticking.
As part of the New Year’s Day agreement to avert the so-called “fiscal cliff,” Congress and the President agreed to postpone sequestration until March 1. Thus, unless democrats and republicans can come up with a new deficit reduction plan over the next two weeks automatic, across-the-board cuts in federal government spending will take effect starting March 1, with the first $110 billion by September 30 of this year.
What makes this new round of fiscal crisis negotiations unique, however, is that if nothing is done sequestration will automatically take effect. In other words, the dreaded “S-word” of draconian spending cuts can be avoided only if some alternative budget reduction package proves acceptable to both republicans and democrats.
Spending cut advocates believe that the specter of sequestration gives them an edge in dealing with President Obama and Capitol Hill defenders of government programs. They can sit back and let sequester happen and $1.2 trillion worth of federal spending will be axed over ten years. To be sure, however, not even the staunchest advocate of slashing government spending is comfortable cutting $50 billion a year out of the defense budget, especially with U.S. troops still in harm’s way.
Worried that republicans would actually allow sequestration to take effect, Senate democrats last week unveiled legislation to substitute targeted cuts in specific programs, e.g., farm subsidies, and another round of tax hikes on high-income households.
Republicans, for their part, immediately declared that they would not even consider additional tax increases, having already been forced to accept $600 billion in higher taxes as part of the fiscal cliff negotiations January 1.
What’s the outlook? Congressional republicans believe they cannot afford to lose another deficit reduction battle to President Obama and Hill democrats. While the first year of sequestration would slash Pentagon spending by some $50 billion, a difficult proposition for the military, the total automatic deficit reduction package would come entirely from cutting government spending. In other words, no new taxes.
Expect a vigorous public relations campaign over the next two weeks. Democrats, the White House and their allies will warn of disastrous cuts in essential government programs if sequestration takes effect. Republicans and their allies will be equally adamant that federal budget deficits and the exploding public debt must be reduced, that taxes have already been raised and that excessive government spending is the main deficit driver.
Sequestration in the form of $1.2 trillion in automatic spending cuts over ten years is certainly not the ideal way to rein in out-of-control federal budget deficits and wasteful government spending. But lawmakers today have in some ways abdicated their responsibility to reach reasonable bipartisan compromises, with both sides chained to ideological orthodoxy. The last resort “S-word” may have become the default option.
A bipartisan group of senators recently announced a Framework for Comprehensive Immigration Reform that would create a “Path to Citizenship” for the 11 million illegal immigrants now living in the U.S.
That four Democratic senators and four Republican senators would endorse a common set of legislative principles on this controversial issue significantly improves its chances of enactment this year or next.
The Path to Citizenship plan envisions three stages for individuals presently in the country illegally:
First, undocumented aliens would be able to qualify for “probationary legal status” that will allow them to live and work legally in the U.S. after they have registered with the government, submitted to a criminal background screening and paid a fine and any back taxes.
Second, once border enforcement and security measures are improved and certified, immigrants who have attained probationary status could apply for a “green card,” granting them legal permanent residence in the U.S., although the senators’ principles framework would require these individuals to “go to the back of the line of prospective immigrants.” Only after “every individual who is already waiting in line for a green card” has received theirs could those with probationary status receive legal permanent residence.
Third, individuals who achieve green card status would be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship, including eligibility for access to government benefits..
Three categories of immigrants would be excepted from the process outlined above and receive accelerated consideration for permanent legal resident status: young people brought into the U.S. illegally as minors; for food safety reasons, certain agricultural workers who are in great demand for seasonal work in the U.S.; and high-skilled individuals who earn graduate degrees from American universities in engineering, mathematics and the sciences.
To be sure, the senators’ framework document leaves many unanswered questions, including whether the legislation will expressly provide for a “guest worker” program that would allow immigrants legally to enter the country and work for specific periods of time before returning to their home countries. The framework does contemplate “admitting new workers” but provides few details.
Another important unspecified aspect is exactly what new compliance responsibilities will be imposed on America’s employers. The senators recognize that employment opportunity is the magnet that attracts most immigrants to the U.S. But the framework statement calls for a “tough, fair, effective and mandatory employment verification system” that “must hold employers accountable.”
The senators pledge that “Our proposal will create an effective employment verification system,” which, of course, the vast majority of employers would welcome, assuming the government can create and implement such a system in practice.
In light of some of the questions that have arisen with the government’s E-Verify system, America’s employers will be paying strict attention to Congressional deliberations on this mandatory employment verification system.
The last time Congress gave serious consideration to comprehensive immigration reform legislation, in 2007, senators and representatives were unable to reach agreement on a final bill. Hopes are high that this time President Obama and Capitol Hill Republicans and Democrats will find a way to improve America’s immigration system and create a win-win-win for the U.S. economy, employers and millions of immigrants.
Defending his trades of future first-round draft choices for veteran stars, famed Washington Redskins coach George Allen insisted, “The future is now!”
That’s good advice for America’s employers, who must prepare right now for the January 1, 2014 effective date of the most challenging compliance provision in the 2010 healthcare reform law—the Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act (PPACA).
In brief, “Play or Pay,” or more formally, “Employer Shared Responsibility,” requires employers with more than 50 full-time employees to offer workers and their dependents health coverage that is both “affordable” and of “minimum value.” If the coverage does not meet both of those tests the employer can be subject to a special penalty–$3,000 for each full-time employee who qualifies for an insurance premium subsidy for health coverage bought from a State health insurance exchange marketplace.
Health coverage is “affordable” if an employee’s share of the monthly premium for self-only coverage for the lowest cost option that provides minimum value does not exceed 9.5% of the employee’s wages as reported in W-2, Box 1.
Health coverage provides “Minimum Value” if the employer-sponsored health plan’s share of the total allowed costs of health benefits is at least 60%, i.e., 60% actuarial value of benefits. The US Department of Health and Human Services offers employers a convenient “actuarial value calculator” to assist in the calculation of minimum value coverage.
To be sure, penalties are even stiffer for employers who choose not to offer any health coverage to full-time employees (Code section 4980 (H) (a)), but that’s a subject for another report.
The future is now for these 2014 compliance mandates because on December 28, 2012 the Treasury Department and IRS issued proposed regulations and Q/As providing new guidance on the employer Play or Pay requirement.
The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking provides helpful guidance on the definition of full-time employee (30 hours of service per week or 130 hours per month), differentiating among on-going employees, new employees, short-term employees, seasonal employees and rehired employees.
According to the Groom Law Group in Washington DC, Treasury and IRS have also provided an optional safe-harbor to help employers calculate whether an employee is to be counted as full-time for purposes of Play or Pay. The so-called “look-back” measurement period for counting hours of service for ongoing employees, says Groom, “cannot be less than 3 months or more than 12 months,” i.e., hours worked in 2013!
December’s issuance of new guidance for employers for the Play or Pay mandate confirms that government regulatory action under the healthcare reform law will proceed full speed ahead for 2013, 2014 and beyond.
Starting next year employers will be required to offer employees “affordable” and “minimum value” health coverage—or pay an excise tax penalty if employees qualify for subsidized coverage from exchange marketplaces.
But starting this year employers need first to determine if they are subject to Play or Pay based on their number of full-time employees and relying on the recently issued Treasury-IRS guidance.
If they are subject to the mandate, and most will be, then as soon as possible subject employers need to undertake some serious strategic planning about their 2014 health plan designs and costs. To avoid Play or Pay penalties employers will make sure the coverage they offer employees and their dependents during open enrollment later this year will meet the required affordability and minimum value tests.
The future is now.
As an estimated one million Times Square revelers counted down the seconds to the New Year, one hundred U.S. senators counted down the votes to approval of a January 1 legislative compromise to prevent across-the-board tax rate increases and spending cuts that has come to be known as the “Fiscal Cliff.” The House of Representatives followed suit later in the day.
Like most New Years, this agreement brings good news and bad news. The good news is that democrats, led by Vice President Joe Biden, and republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), hammered out compromises to prevent everyone’s income tax rates from going up on January 1. Economists had predicted that the combination of higher income tax rates and a scheduled “sequester” of a big chunk of defense and domestic spending could have triggered a recession in 2013.
The bad news is that this is a fiscal cliff avoidance deal only; it includes almost nothing to slow the growth of federal government spending. Indeed, the New Year’s Day agreement does little to reduce present or future federal budget deficits. Government spending will continue to march upward and the U.S. public debt will continue to grow from the present $16.4 trillion to over $20 trillion in ten years.
A “Thelma and Louise”-style cliff dive was avoided but only because Congressional democrats and republicans postponed tough decisions about reducing annual $1 trillion federal budget deficits and punted on our skyrocketing public debt.
Let’s look at some of the preliminary details:
First, Congress and the President agreed to permanently extend Bush-era income tax rates for 99% of taxpayers. Except for high-income households no one will see an increase in income tax rates for 2013 and beyond.
President Obama and Congressional democrats made a big concession to republicans in agreeing to increase the income threshold at which the highest marginal tax rate will kick in. The president had wanted to increase the top rate from the present 35% to the Clinton-era top rate of 39.6%, and to apply it to individuals earning more than $200,000 and couples earning more than $250,000. The final package establishes a new maximum rate of 39.6% but it applies only to individuals with taxable incomes above $400,000 and to couples earning more than $450,000.
Republicans also made a big concession: they voted to increase marginal tax rates, the first time that’s happened in at least 20 years. They also accepted caps on itemized deductions and a phase-out of the personal exemption for individuals making more than $250,000 and couples making more than $300,000.
The second big piece of Washington DC’s New Year’s Day accord is that the president and Congressional leaders decided to kill the 2% Social Security payroll tax holiday in effect for 2011 and 2012. As this blog predicted months ago, democrats and republicans concluded that siphoning off over $100 billion every year that had been earmarked for the Social Security Trust Fund was not prudent given the precarious state of Social Security’s finances.
To be sure, workers who had been receiving an average payroll tax break of $1,000 for the past two years will notice right away that their checks are lighter by some $20 a week. Put another way, while our income tax rates will stay the same our payroll tax rate will go up compared to 2011 and 2012.
The fiscal cliff agreement contains a number of other important provisions, including a permanent fix in the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) which will prevent the AMT from snaring some 30 million new taxpayers for the first time when they file their 2012 tax returns, according to the Washington Post.
In addition, the agreement extends several expiring tax provisions, including the R&D tax credit and certain other education-related credits. And at a cost of some $30 billion emergency unemployment insurance benefits will be extended for another year. Meanwhile, the package includes the so-called “doc-fix,” a postponement for another year of scheduled cuts in Medicare reimbursements to physicians.
The obvious shortcoming in the package is that it contributes little to deficit reduction—only about $600 billion over the next decade, or about $60 billion per year. With annual federal budget deficits in the trillion-dollar range as far as the eye can see, a $60 billion contribution, while helpful, is but a drop in the deficit bucket.
Unlike most last-minute Capitol Hill cliffhangers, the New Year’s Day package is more ceasefire than compromise. There will be few handshakes and little celebrating. President Obama got what he wanted: an increase in tax rates on high-income taxpayers.
But the absence of any provision to restrain government spending, indeed to apply new revenue from the tax rate increase to deficit reduction instead of to pay for more government benefits in the form of unemployment insurance or tax credits, portends a resumption of partisan political warfare in the New Year.
Washington DC has avoided going over the fiscal cliff. Higher taxes on the rich will become law. But more cliffs lie ahead, including a vote to increase the public debt ceiling sometime in March. Meanwhile the national debt grows and grows toward 100% of our GDP.
One can only hope that the 113th Congress that will convene on January 3 with 12 new senators and 67 new House members will make the difficult decisions needed to reduce annual federal budget deficits and put our mammoth public debt on a sustainable trajectory. A 3-D iceberg of deficits, debt and demographics looms on the horizon. Perhaps this time Titanic can avoid it.
Any day now the White House and the Congressional leadership will announce an agreement to avoid going over the fiscal cliff on New Year’s Day; it will be a “down payment” on a comprehensive deficit reduction plan to be negotiated in 2013.
They will declare the obvious: to reduce annual federal budget deficits and prevent America’s $16 trillion public debt from hitting $23 trillion in ten years, government spending will be cut and taxes will go up.
Today we examine the tax part of this equation.
President Obama has been saying for months that as the first step toward deficit reduction the rich should be “asked” to pay “their fair share.”
Specifically, he has proposed that the Bush-era income tax rate cuts, scheduled to expire this December 31, be extended for all taxpayers except individuals making over $200,000 and couples making over $250,000. This would mean that the present marginal tax rates of 33% and 35%, on incomes between $250,000 and $388,350 and above $388,350, would revert to the higher Clinton-era rates of 36% and 39.6% respectively.
Citing the support of a majority of Americans as well as his own re-election, the President insists that he will not sign into law any fiscal cliff legislation that does not include an increase in tax rates on wealthy taxpayers. He argues that continuing lower tax rates for 98% of Americans should not be held hostage to keeping tax rates lower for the richest 2%.
To be sure, the White House has signaled some flexibility on the precise rates and taxable incomes the President might agree to—he might, for example, accept 35% and 38% on incomes over $500,000.
Congressional Republicans, on the other hand, oppose raising anyone’s tax rates. They assert (1) that the economy is too weak to raise taxes; (2) that many small business owners pay individual income taxes and will be hard hit by a tax hike; and (3) that the main cause of $1 trillion+ annual budget deficits and a $16 trillion public debt is over-spending not under-taxing—and that additional tax revenue will be used not for deficit reduction but to underwrite more government spending.
A further complication is that President Obama’s plan to raise the top two tax rates on taxable incomes over $250,000 is estimated to raise only about $80 billion in additional revenue annually, roughly 7% of the FY 2012 budget deficit of $1.1 trillion. In other words, hiking tax rates on the rich would help only marginally to address titantic deficits and debt. It would help even less if a final agreement shaved back the maximum rates and taxable incomes.
All this means that to accomplish the goal of reducing federal budget deficits and getting America’s massive public debt on a more sustainable path, the tax revenue component of any longer term package must include more than higher tax rates on the rich.
Which is why Capitol Hill Republicans and Democrats are exploring ideas for broadening the income tax base through so-called “tax reform” measures. While not likely to be included in any last minute fiscal cliff legislation this year, consideration is being given to scaling back the value of various tax deductions, credits, exclusions and loopholes.
The President has actually proposed capping all such tax incentives at the 28% tax bracket—which would have the effect of denying the full value of deductions like charitable contributions to taxpayers in the highest brackets—36% and 39.6% if the President gets his way. This proposal will be studied carefully in 2013.
In the meantime some 14 days remain, including the Christmas holidays, for Congress and the President to hammer out a deal to avoid going over the fiscal cliff.
Lawmakers will notice that this Friday, December 21, marks the winter solstice, the longest night of the year and the first day of winter. They have no doubt been informed that the ancient Mayan calendar apparently predicts the end of the world on this year’s winter solstice. While it won’t be the end of the world if Republicans and Democrats fail to reach agreement, a bipartisan compromise to reduce deficits and debt will boost the economy and brighten everyone’s prospects for a Happy New Year.