WASHINGTON – In a show of bipartisan unity, the House overwhelmingly approved a bill Wednesday to allow Americans with disabilities to open tax-free bank accounts to pay for expenses from education to housing and health care.
The 404-17 vote approves the most sweeping legislation to help the disabled since 1990, affecting as many as 54 million disabled people and their families who often struggle to pay for intensive forms of care. It now goes to the Senate, where it was expected to move quickly to passage next week.
At a time when Congress is bitterly divided over immigration, taxes and spending, House members touted the bill as evidence that both parties can get things done. First introduced in 2006, the legislation, called the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act, lists 85 percent of Congress as co-sponsors, even after a conservative group criticized it as a "decisive step in expanding the welfare state."
It would the first major legislation for the disabled since the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.
"People often speak as to how Congress is dysfunctional," said Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-Fla., the lead House sponsor. "If we look at the ABLE Act, we have a chance to see what happens when people work together. ...It simply gives those individuals with disabilities a chance for the American Dream."
Rep. Dave Camp, R-Mich., who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, called it a commonsense bill that few could quibble with. "It's not every day we have the chance to clear major hurdles in front of people who simply need a hand up. That's what this bill does," he said.
Dozens of supporters of the bill, including parents of children with Down syndrome, were in the House chamber as lawmakers cast their votes, waiting and smiling in anticipation after years of pushing the legislation.
Modeled after tax-free college savings accounts, the bill would amend the federal tax code to allow states to establish the program. To qualify, a person would have to be diagnosed by age 26 with a disability that results in "marked and severe functional limitations"; those who are already receiving Social Security disability benefits would also qualify. Families then would be able to set up tax-free accounts at financial institutions, depositing up to $14,000 annually to pay for long-term needs such as education, transportation and health care.
The contributions would be in after-tax dollars but earnings would grow tax free.
The ABLE accounts would be able to accrue up to $100,000 in savings without the person losing eligibility for government aid such as Social Security; currently, the asset limit is $2,000. Medicaid coverage would continue no matter how much money is deposited in the accounts.