Former Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), who left office in 2012, emerged from retirement on Tuesday to focus on what he called a crisis in personal savings levels in the United States.
Conrad, along with former Bush administration Social Security Administration Chief Operating Officer Jim Lockhart, are spearheading a new task force on savings and retirement. Among the many notables on the panel are former Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) and former House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.).
The group, hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center, hopes to come up with recommendations on how to fix the funding problems in Social Security as well as possible ways to change the tax code to encourage more savings.
At a press conference launching the Personal Savings Initiative, Conrad and Lockhart said they aim to have a report out in March or April of next year, after the midterm elections are over.
That timing could allow the report to play an important role as Congress looks to fix Social Security’s disability trust fund, which is set to run out in 2016. The task force thinks a bill solving that issue could also address the Social Security retirement fund, which is set for insolvency by 2035.
Conrad said that the group will aim to have a truly bipartisan plan that can pass the next Congress. He said they will start by conferring with the likes of Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dave Camp (R-Mich.), Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), all of whom have developed plans in this area.
"We will be consulting on a regular basis with members of Congress and the administration," he said. "Nothing is going to pass unless there is bipartisan support."
Conrad said he was motivated to engage on the issue after learning that nearly 40 percent of Americans cannot scrounge up $2,000 in 30 days. "If that isn’t stark I don’t know what is!" he said.
Lockhart, who was involved in former President George W. Bush's attempt to convert Social Security into personal private accounts, said that approach is again on the table in the Personal Savings Initiative. He said the group will look at pensions, Social Security and investments like Individual Retirement Accounts, long known as the three-legged stool of retirement support.
"We will aim to make it more of an easy chair for the American people," he said.
"Everything is on the table," Conrad concurred.
The group will also look at the massive decline in defined benefit pensions and the rise of 401ks. The new programs suffer from a lack of participation, complex tax rules and companies paring back on their contributions.
Commission member Dallas Salisbury of the Employee Benefit Research Institute noted that if a 35-year-old wants to start saving in order to retire in his or her 70s, he will have to be putting away 22 percent of income, but few people are doing that.