At the start of 2015 President Obama had a goal: use the blunt force of taxation to effectively kill 529 college savings plans.
With great pride, Americans from all walks of life rely on 529 accounts to help put their kids, grandkids, nieces and nephews through college. Earnings grow tax-free and distributions are tax-free provided the funds are used for qualified college expenses. But this year Obama decided it was time to tax the earnings in 529s while pushing people toward a government program designed by his administration’s best and brightest central planners.
It was a spectacular failure. The public backlash against his proposal was immediate, heartfelt, and fierce.
His extensive personal history praising and using 529s -- and the White House’s past strong support for 529s – was exposed. He shelved the plan. The defeat was embarrassing and total.
As the year comes to a close the Obama administration would prefer we all just forget the whole ordeal. There is scant coverage of the issue in beltway journalists’ end of year look-backs. But it is important to review what happened not as a way to spike the football, but as a lesson of what the Left might do to your savings if given full control of the federal government.
The 529 issue emerged late on a Saturday night -- Jan. 17, 2015 -- when the White House gave a select group of reporters an early look at the tax provisions in President Obama’s budget. Those invited to the phone briefing were provided a ten-page, single-spaced document which criticized 529s as “upside-down.”
One of the reporters on the call provided the document to Americans for Tax Reform, whose tax policy director Ryan Ellis published a late night analysis ringing the alarm bell on the Obama 529 tax.
On Monday Jan. 19, Ellis detailed the ways the 529 tax would fall heavily on the middle class. The next day, the Drudge Report posted ATR’s documentation of how the 529 tax was a violation of President Obama’s “firm pledge” not to raise any form of tax on any American making less than $250,000. Top radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Dave Ramsey weighed in passionately against the new tax.
It took the mainstream media nearly a week to realize what was happening. On Jan. 22 the New York Times finally reported on the issue with an article headlined, “White House Proposals on 529 College Savings Plans Would Reduce Benefits.” On Jan. 23, the Washington Post came out with a piece titled “Critics Pounce on Obama’s Plan to Cut the Tax Benefits of 529 College Savings Plans,” and POLITICO deemed 529s “The Hot New Tax Debate.”
The Obama administration doubled down. In a Jan. 23 interview, White House Council of Economic Advisers chairman Jason Furman deemed 529s to be “ineffective” and “tilted towards the upper end.”
Embarrassingly for the White House, at the same time Team Obama was calling 529s “upside down,” “ineffective,” and “tilted towards the upper end,” Ellis and ATR rolled out a series of items detailing official White House and Obama family experience with 529s that told a different story.
In his 2006 book "The Audacity of Hope," Obama praised 529s, and in 2007 actually used book earnings to make a $240,000 contribution to his own family’s 529 accounts, according to financial disclosures. With his own 529s topped off, he tried to yank the ladder away for everyone else.
It was also revealed that in July 2010, during a lengthy interview on ABC's Good Morning America, Obama cited his own 529 accounts as an example of how he can identify with the middle class. He was asked, "Can you feel the pain directly that other Americans are feeling?" His answer:
"Well, part of it has, that part that is devoted to Malia and Sasha's college fund was in a 529, you know, that had been set up when I was still a state senator. And, obviously, that goes up and down with the stock market and so it's lost value like everybody else."
The hits kept coming. It turns out the Obama White House was for 529s before it was against them.
On Sept. 9, 2009, President Obama’s White House Task Force on Middle Class Working Families issued a detailed report on 529s. The top conclusion from the report:
"529 plans are an attractive and convenient means of saving for college."
The report was released with great fanfare. Vice President Biden, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan shared a stage at the launch event at Syracuse University. Geithner strongly touted 529 plans:
“Today I want to highlight one program in particular, Section 529 savings plans.
These plans can be an immensely effective way for Americans to save for college. They are generally administered by the states, and they allow people to put aside money for college and enjoy investment earnings that are free of federal taxes and, in some cases, receive state tax benefits, as well. When state tax benefits are included, a typical middle class family can accumulate 25 percent more in 529 accounts than they can in a typical taxable savings account."
An official White House statement from the same day praised 529s as “a convenient, tax-preferred way for families to save for college.”
They could not have said it better. But by 2015 the White House was moving to tax 529s out of existence.
On Jan. 27, 2015 public pressure reached fever pitch. An unnamed White House official told the New York Times the 529 tax hike would be dropped. The 529 issue had become a “distraction,” said the official.
A major Obama budget initiative had just been utterly demolished. In ten days flat.
Even after formally dropping the 529 tax hike from the budget, the White House stood firm in support of the policy itself. During the Jan. 28 White House press briefing the following exchange took place:
Reporter: "So you call this a distraction. Do you still think this is a good policy? There was so much backlash particularly from middle class Americans who said - we really value these plans, so do you still stand by this as good policy?”
White House spokesman Eric Schultz: “Sure. We do.”
Schultz then gave a heads up to the assembled reporters that the printed copies of the budget would still contain the 529 tax because the announcement to abandon it “was made after the book was in the shop.”
A fitting coda. The tax is dead. For now.
John Kartch is Director of Communications at Americans for Tax Reform.