Congress Has Finally Found a Bill to Rally Around

The Able Act, which would allow Americans with disabilities to set up tax-free savings accounts, has broad support and is expected to pass both chambers with ease this fall.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner hold hands as they sing 'We Shall Overcome' during a ceremony to award the Congressional Gold Medal Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King.
National Journal
Sarah Mimms
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Sarah Mimms
July 23, 2014, 5:38 p.m.

Mem­bers of Con­gress are set to leave town for the “Au­gust” re­cess (which will ac­tu­ally last through Sept. 8) in just over a week’s time. When they re­turn they’ll have a num­ber of head­aches on their hands, in­clud­ing must-pass le­gis­la­tion like a bill to keep the gov­ern­ment open past Sept. 30 when the cur­rent fund­ing ex­pires, and should-pass le­gis­la­tion, like a still-elu­sive bi­par­tis­an com­prom­ise to over­haul the Vet­er­ans Af­fairs De­part­ment. With the elec­tion less than two months later, none of these battles are likely to be pretty.

But as mem­bers pre­pare to re­turn to Wash­ing­ton with hel­mets and pitch­forks, there is one bright spot on the ho­ri­zon: a bi­par­tis­an, bicam­er­al bill that will solve a ma­jor prob­lem for mil­lions of the coun­try’s most vul­ner­able cit­izens and is likely to glide through Con­gress with ease. “Do-Noth­ing” Con­gress, meet the Able Act.

The Able Act (short for “Achiev­ing a Bet­ter Life Ex­per­i­ence”) would al­low Amer­ic­ans with dis­ab­il­it­ies and their par­ents to open tax-free sav­ings ac­counts to pay for such things as hous­ing, edu­ca­tion, trans­port­a­tion, and med­ic­al care.

While par­ents can save for their chil­dren who will at­tend col­lege in tax-de­ferred ac­counts un­der cur­rent law, there is no such sav­ings mech­an­ism for chil­dren whose dis­ab­il­it­ies would pre­vent them from at­tend­ing col­lege. “No longer would par­ents have to stand aside and watch as oth­ers use IRS-sanc­tioned tools like 529 edu­ca­tion sav­ings ac­counts to lay the ground­work for a bright­er fu­ture [if the Able Act passes],” Rep. An­der Cren­shaw, R-Fla, wrote in a Wash­ing­ton Times op-ed ad­voc­at­ing for the bill back in 2010. “They would be able to do so for their chil­dren as well.”

Al­though the bill failed to gain trac­tion in past Con­gresses, it ap­pears to have real legs head­ing in­to the fall. A Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide ex­plained that al­though the concept has al­ways been pop­u­lar, it has taken years for ad­voc­ates to get mo­mentum for an is­sue that isn’t par­tic­u­larly timely.

But head­ing in­to the Au­gust re­cess, the Able Act now has an as­ton­ish­ing 366 co­spon­sors in the House and 76 in the Sen­ate and is very likely to pass this fall. Both House and Sen­ate lead­er­ship have already com­mit­ted to bring­ing the bill to the floor in their re­spect­ive cham­bers and are aim­ing for Septem­ber votes, ac­cord­ing to the Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic aide. That timeline would provide Con­gress with one last kum­baya mo­ment be­fore all hell breaks loose in the Novem­ber midterm elec­tions.

“No oth­er bill in Con­gress has this level of bi­par­tis­an and bicam­er­al sup­port,” Sen. Robert Ca­sey, D-Pa., the lead spon­sor in the Sen­ate, said Wed­nes­day, dur­ing a hear­ing of the Sen­ate Fin­ance Com­mit­tee’s Sub­com­mit­tee on Tax­a­tion and IRS Over­sight, which he chairs.

“That’s more than bi­par­tis­an, that’s out­stand­ing around here,” ad­ded Sen. Mike En­zi, R-Wyo., the sub­com­mit­tee’s rank­ing mem­ber. Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., a fel­low sub­com­mit­tee mem­ber and co­spon­sor of the bill, said he couldn’t think of a reas­on that any mem­ber “would want to get in the way of this bill” at this point.

The Able Act could still be held up, however. Fights over amend­ments have de­railed pop­u­lar le­gis­la­tion in the Sen­ate sev­er­al times already this Con­gress. But with Sen­ate Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Harry Re­id and Minor­ity Lead­er Mitch Mc­Con­nell already signed on as co­spon­sors, ad­voc­ates are op­tim­ist­ic that they’ll avoid a floor fight.

The Sub­com­mit­tee on Tax­a­tion and IRS Over­sight on Wed­nes­day heard testi­mony from Sara Wolff, a Pennsylvania res­id­ent with Down syn­drome, who has been a ma­jor ad­voc­ate for people with the con­di­tion. Un­der cur­rent law, Amer­ic­ans with dis­ab­il­it­ies would lose their fed­er­al be­ne­fits if they gained more than $2,000 in as­sets, Wolff test­i­fied Wed­nes­day morn­ing. “[That] makes it tough for me to save,” she said. “Work­ing two full-time jobs, my em­ploy­ers know that I can’t earn more than $700 a month.”

The Able Act would al­low Wolff and oth­ers to save money in tax-free ac­counts without cut­ting off their fed­er­al be­ne­fits. Be­cause the bill would al­low in­di­vidu­als or their par­ents to save their own money, rather than re­ly­ing solely on fed­er­al be­ne­fits, the le­gis­la­tion is pop­u­lar among both Demo­crats and more fisc­ally minded Re­pub­lic­ans.

Rep. Cathy Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers, R-Wash., who is the fourth-highest rank­ing mem­ber in the House Re­pub­lic­an Con­fer­ence and a chair of the House Down Syn­drome Caucus, is a ma­jor co­spon­sor of the le­gis­la­tion. Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers, whose 7-year-old son Cole has Down syn­drome, told ad­voc­ates and mem­bers of the sub­com­mit­tee on Wed­nes­day that the is­sue is deeply per­son­al for her.

She wor­ries, she said, that the cur­rent law forces Amer­ic­ans with dis­ab­il­it­ies in­to gov­ern­ment de­pend­ence, rather than em­power­ing them to save for their own fu­tures. “I want noth­ing more than for [Cole] to be able to reach his full po­ten­tial, live his life to the fullest. I am con­cerned that I see fed­er­al policies that po­ten­tially place lim­its on his op­por­tun­it­ies. The Able Act will change that. It will help make sure that Sara and Cole and mil­lions like them that have spe­cial needs will be able to save for their fu­ture and reach their full po­ten­tial,” she test­i­fied.

“This is the year we are go­ing to get it on the pres­id­ent’s desk,” she ad­ded.

Rep. Chris Van Hol­len, D-Md., who co­chairs the Con­gres­sion­al Down Syn­drome Caucus along­side Mc­Mor­ris Rodgers and Rep. Pete Ses­sions, R-Texas, was sim­il­arly op­tim­ist­ic. “I think it may be our one really good piece of bi­par­tis­an le­gis­la­tion we en­act this year,” he said.

Ses­sions, who also has a son with Down syn­drome, agreed. “I think the Able Act is vir­tu­ally an agree­ment is­sue right now…. I think it will come to the floor in a bicam­er­al, bi­par­tis­an basis and that was pretty much all de­term­ined and agreed to. And we’re on a glide path,” he said.

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