Donald Lambro

Clinton's plan would create retirement-savings accounts primarily aimed at these middle- to lower-income people who would be automatically signed up upon employment. The feds would provide a refundable matching tax credit -- dollar for dollar -- for the first $1,000 in savings by a married couple earning up to $60,000.

The tax credit would drop to a 50 percent match on the first $1,000 in savings for couples earning between $60,000 and $100,000, and would be phased out for anyone over that threshold. Workers could contribute up to $5,000 a year into these accounts.

The matching tax credit would also be made available to anyone who participates in 401(k) accounts, in addition to the American Retirement Accounts. "That means tens of millions of middle-class families will get matching tax cuts of up to $500 and $1,000 to help them build a nest egg for retirement," the Clinton campaign said.

They would be portable from job to job, and the money could be used to buy a home, college costs and a small portion of it to help tide workers over when they are unemployed.

The estimated cost of all this -- no doubt vastly underestimated -- would be up to $25 billion a year, depending on how many sign up. It would be paid out of general revenues, though Clinton said the tax-revenue loss would be offset by keeping the death tax on estates in place beyond its 2010 expiration date.

The employee plans would allow their direct deposits to be sent into diversified investment accounts that would compete for their business, and employers would qualify for tax credits to offset any implementation costs.

The idea of providing retirement savings and investment plans to those workers who are not in tax-free company retirement accounts such as 401(k) plans or IRAs has been a vexing one for many years. But not for lack of several good ideas to offer such benefits to middle- to lower-income workers.

Privately funded IRAs and 401(k)s have been exploding for decades, with about $7.5 trillion in assets as of 2006, according to the Employee Benefit Research Institute. More than 40 percent of workers between the ages of 21 and 64 have such plans.

President Bush offered a bipartisan plan to provide private-investment accounts that would let workers invest a small percentage of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds and build wealth. Another plan offered by some think tanks would set up a system of IRA-style automatic-deposit savings plans as Clinton envisions for small-business employees, but without the matching federal checks.

Clinton has begun a needed debate on the retirement-savings issue that is long overdue. But this is no time to put another costly entitlement burden on the shoulders of the American taxpayer.

Donald Lambro

Donald Lambro is chief political correspondent for The Washington Times.