Ten years ago [Aug. 17], President George W. Bush signed into law the Pension Protection Act of 2006 (PPA) – the last major piece of retirement security legislation enacted in the United States. That reform was a major step forward and has helped millions of Americans save for their own retirement.

But a decade later, it is clear that more work remains to be done. Only about half of private-sector employees are contributing to workplace retirement savings plans. Even those who do manage to build up savings lack options to make those funds last for the rest of their lives. It is crucial that policymakers revisit how to improve Americans’ retirement security, otherwise they risk inviting the retirement “crisis” that some argue is already upon us.

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The PPA passed with bipartisan support and impacted almost every aspect of retirement savings. It revamped funding rules for defined benefit pensions; increased contribution limits for defined contribution retirement plans, such as 401(k) plans; and established a permanent “Saver’s Credit” that encouraged lower-earning workers to save for retirement.

Importantly, the PPA also recognized that defined contribution plans were rapidly becoming the primary savings vehicle for most savers. The law contained provisions to make these plans better. For example, it encouraged automatic enrollment, whereby all workers contribute to the retirement plan unless they proactively choose not to participate. More than half of large employers have now adopted this feature, which has dramatically increased worker participation.

But despite these improvements to retirement security, about one-third of working Americans still do not have access to a plan through their employer. Even among those who do have access, too many do not contribute. The access and participation gaps are stark among workers for smaller businesses – while 90 percent of private-sector employers with 500 or more workers offer a plan, only half of employers with less than 100 workers do so. Smaller employers that do offer a plan are less likely to use automatic enrollment than larger employers, and their plans often have higher fees, which cut into investment returns.

The status quo is unacceptable, and that is why our commission at the Bipartisan Policy Center tackled these challenges. Americans should have the opportunity to easily save for retirement straight from their paychecks, but smaller employers lack the time and expertise to navigate the complex requirements of plan sponsorship and do not operate on a scale that achieves the lowest plan costs. These businesses need an easier way to offer their workers well-designed retirement savings plans.

One of our commission’s recommendations would allow smaller businesses to join together in larger, more-efficient retirement plans in which most responsibilities would be transferred to an experienced third party. Enhancements to the Treasury Department’s existing myRA program, focused on lower-earning workers, would also expand savings. Additional recommendations would promote greater adoption of automatic features that increase participation and contribution rates.

Similar approaches have been proposed in Congress, yet these bills have not become law. In the absence of legislation, states have acted to address retirement-plan coverage, but such a path leads to a 50-state patchwork of rules that we believe is far from ideal. Instead, we recommend a nationwide minimum-coverage standard, which would ensure that workers have access to a retirement plan through the workplace. Our approach provides employers with straightforward ways to meet that requirement. Moreover, for younger, low-income workers, the current Saver’s Credit should be improved by turning it into a Starter Saver’s Match – with the federal government directly matching up to $500 placed in a retirement savings account.

As Americans accumulate more funds for retirement, a new challenge arises: how to make these savings last as life expectancies increase. Many workplace retirement savings plans do not include features to help savers generate a sustainable income in retirement. Regulatory changes and guidance could promote access to lifetime-income products like annuities, as well as spread awareness of the benefits of claiming Social Security later, both of which are effective ways to sustain retirement income.

We recognize that some of these recommendations are politically difficult. But many are not controversial and have attracted bipartisan support from lawmakers. Congress should send the president a major, bipartisan retirement-security package by the end of 2017. Helping Americans better prepare for their retirement will also bolster our economy and help ensure that all workers can enjoy financial security throughout their lifetimes.

It was not easy, but our bipartisan commission rose to the challenge of reaching consensus on these difficult retirement security issues, and so can our political leaders.

Former Sen. Kent Conrad and James B. Lockhart III, vice chairman of WL Ross & Co. LLC, co-chaired the Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Retirement Security and Personal Savings.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.