MONEY Pensions

What Retirees Need to Know about the New Federal Pension Rules

Only a small percentage of retirees are directly affected by the new rule. But future legislation may lead to more pension cutbacks.

The last-minute deal to allow retiree pension benefit cuts as part of the federal spending bill for 2015 passed by Congress last week has set off shock waves in the U.S. retirement system.

Buried in the $1.1 trillion “Cromnibus” legislation signed this week by President Barack Obama was a provision that aims to head off a looming implosion of multiemployer pension plans—traditional defined benefit plans jointly funded by groups of employers. The pension reforms affect only retirees in struggling multiemployer pension plans, but any retiree living on a defined benefit pension could rightly wonder: Am I next?

“Even people who aren’t impacted directly by this would have to ask themselves: If they’re doing that, what’s to stop them from doing it to me?” says Jeff Snyder, vice president of Cammack Retirement Group, a consulting and investment advisory firm that works with retirement plans.

The answer: plenty. Private sector pensions are governed by the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA), which prevents cuts for retirees in most cases. The new legislation doesn’t affect private sector workers in single-employer plans. Workers and retirees in public sector pension plans also are not affected by the law.

Here are answers to some of the key questions workers and retirees should be asking in the legislation’s wake.

Q: Cutting benefits for people who already are retired seems unfair. Why was this done?

A: Proponents argue it was better to preserve some pension benefit for workers in the most troubled plans rather than letting plans collapse. The multiemployer plans are backstopped by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp (PBGC), the federally sponsored agency that insures private sector pensions. The multiemployer fund was on track to run out of money within 10 years—a date that could be hastened if healthy companies withdraw from their plans. If the multiemployer backup system had been allowed to collapse, pensioners would have been left with no benefit.

Opponents, including AARP and the Pension Rights Center, argued that cutting benefits for current retirees was draconian and established a bad precedent.

Q: Who will be affected by the new law? If I have a traditional pension, should I worry?

A: Only pensioners in multiemployer plans are at risk, and even there, the risk is limited to retirees in “red zone” plans—those that are severely underfunded. Of the 10 million participants in multiemployer plans, perhaps 1 million will see some cuts. The new law also prohibits any cuts for beneficiaries over age 80, or who receive a disability pension.

Q: What will be the size of the cuts?

A: That is up to plan trustees. However, the maximum cuts permitted under the law are dramatic. Many retirees in these troubled plans were well-paid union workers who receive substantial pension benefits. For a retiree with 25 years of service and a $25,000 annual benefit, the maximum annual cut permitted under the law is $13,200, according to a cutback calculator at the Pension Rights Center’s website.

The cuts must be approved by a majority of all the active and retired workers in a plan (not just a majority of those who vote).

Q: How do I determine if I’m at risk?

A: Plan sponsors are required to send out an annual funding notice indicating the funding status of your program. Plans in the red zone must send workers a “critical status alert.” If you’re in doubt, Snyder suggests, “just call your retirement plan administrator,” Snyder says. “Simply ask, if you have cause for concern. Is your plan underfunded?”

The U.S. Department of Labor’s website maintains a list of plans on the critical list.

Q: How quickly would the cuts be made?

A: If a plan’s trustees decide to make cuts, a notice would be sent to workers. Snyder says implementation would take at least six months, and might require “a year or more.”

Q: Am I safe if I am in a single employer pension plan?

A: When the PBGC takes over a private sector single employer plan, about 85% of beneficiaries receive the full amount of their promised benefit. The maximum benefit paid by PBGC this year is $59,320.

Q: Does this law make it more likely that we’ll see efforts to cut other retiree benefits?

A: That will depend on the political climate in Washington, and in statehouses across the country. In a previous column I argued that the midterm elections results boost the odds of attacks on public sector pensions, Social Security and Medicare.

Sadly, the Cromnibus deal should serve as a warning that full pension benefits aren’t a sure thing anymore. So having a Plan B makes sense. “If you have a defined benefit pension, great,” Snyder says. “But you should still be putting money away to make sure you have something to rely on in the future.”

Read next: This Is the Toughest Threat to Boomers’ Retirement Plans

TIME Congress

Cuban-American Senators Rip Obama’s Cuba Trade

Senator Rubio speaks on the economy
U.S. Senator Marco Rubio speaks on strategies for sparking economic growth in Washington on March 10, 2014. Brooks Kraft—Corbis

The three Cuban-American senators bashed the Obama Administration’s decision to release three Cubans held by the United States on the same day Cuba released an American contractor it had held for years.

New Jersey Democratic Senator Robert Menendez slammed the Administration, calling it an “asymmetrical trade”—a description the Administration rebuts—that “sets a dangerous precedent” and will “invite further belligerence toward Cuba’s opposition movement and the hardening of the government’s dictatorial hold on its people.”

“It invites dictatorial and rogue regimes to use Americans serving overseas as bargaining chips,” said Menendez, the outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, in a statement. “I fear that today’s actions will put at risk the thousands of Americans that work overseas to support civil society, advocate for access to information, provide humanitarian services, and promote democratic reforms.”

Menendez added that Alan Gross, who was providing satellite communications equipment to the island’s Jewish population, should have been released “immediately and unconditionally” when he was captured five years ago. Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, who along with Menendez and Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz are the only senators with Cuban roots, criticized the trade for legitimatizing the Cuban narrative about Gross’ work in Cuba, as the three Cubans the U.S. released were prosecuted in court on espionage charges. Cuba also released an unnamed U.S. intelligence asset who has been imprisoned for 20 years.

The Administration announced Gross’ release as part of a major shift to normalize full diplomatic relations with President Raúl Castro’s government after they were largely cut off fifty-three years ago. A senior Administration official said the U.S. embassy would open “as soon as possible” in Havana and that the Administration would authorize expanded exports and imports from Cuba. U.S. credit and debit cards will also be permitted for use in Cuba for the first time, among other changes. Rubio and Cruz ripped the moves, which the Administration touted were historic.

“The President’s decision to reward the Castro regime and begin the path toward the normalization of relations with Cuba is inexplicable,” said Rubio in a statement. “Cuba, like Syria, Iran, and Sudan, remains a state sponsor of terrorism…Appeasing the Castro brothers will only cause other tyrants from Caracas to Tehran to Pyongyang to see that they can take advantage of President Obama’s naiveté during his final two years in office. As a result, America will be less safe as a result of the President’s change in policy.”

“Fidel and Raul Castro have just received both international legitimacy and a badly-needed economic lifeline from President Obama,” added Cruz. “We have seen how previous Obama Administration attempts at rapprochement with rogue regimes like Russia and Iran have worked out, with our influence diminished and our enemies emboldened. Now they are revisiting this same disastrous policy with the Castros, blind to the fact that they are being played by brutal dictators whose only goal is maintaining power. And if history be our guide, the Castros will exploit that power to undermine America and oppress the Cuban people.”

Not all senators were so critical of the Administration. After Gross’ release, Maryland Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski called Wednesday “a new day and a monumental breakthrough.” Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin told the Washington Post that the White House and the Vatican had been trying to ensure Gross’ release for more than a year and praised the Administration for attempting to patch U.S.-Cuba relations.

“I think most will acknowledge that our foreign policy for over half a century has not been successful,” said Durbin.“We had hoped by excluding Cuba and pressuring Cuba that the regime would change and it never happened. I think this opening the door to free travel and trade and exchange of realities is going to have a more positive impact in changing Cuba than 50 years of foreign policy.”

With reporting by Zeke J Miller/Washington, D.C.

 

TIME Congress

Congress Approves Sweeping Legislation to Help America’s Disabled

(WASHINGTON) — Congress gave final approval Tuesday to the most sweeping legislation to help the disabled in a quarter century, allowing Americans with disabilities to open tax-free bank accounts to pay for needs such as education, housing and health care.

The move paves the way for creation of the accounts beginning next year for as many as 54 million disabled people and their families.

“This is a monumental, landmark bill,” said Sara Hart Weir, interim president of the National Down Syndrome Society. “This bill will change the way that families can save for all their children and adults with Down syndrome and will ease the unnecessary burdens that are placed on families — all while allowing people with Down syndrome to work and save for the future.”

The Democratic-led Senate passed the measure on a 76-16 vote after it was attached to a bill extending dozens of tax breaks for individuals and businesses until the end of the year. Earlier this month, the GOP-controlled House overwhelmingly approved the measure, having garnered 85 percent of Congress as co-sponsors.

The bill, called the Achieving a Better Life Experience Act, now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

Modeled after tax-free college savings accounts, the ABLE 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 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.

It would be the first major legislation for the disabled since the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act.

The measure was sponsored by Sens. Bob Casey, D-Pa., and Richard Burr, R-N.C.

Many lawmakers had insisted on cuts or revenue increases to offset the measure’s $2 billion price tag over 10 years; the bill’s sponsors found the savings in part by increasing the amount of levies on property for tax-delinquent Medicare providers and suppliers; cutting Medicare funding for “vacuum erection systems”; and making technical adjustments to cap worker’s compensation.

The conservative Heritage Foundation criticized the bill as potentially promoting fraud and abuse, especially when it came to hard-to-diagnose mental disabilities.

TIME energy

New Republican Congress’ First Order of Business: Keystone Pipeline

GOP Congress Agenda
In this Oct. 4, 2012 file photo, large sections of pipe are shown in Sumner, Texas. Republicans are counting on a swift vote in early 2015 on building the Keystone XL pipeline to carry oil from Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast now that Republicans clearly have the numbers in the Senate. Tony Gutierrez—AP

It'll set up a confrontation with President Obama.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Tuesday that the first priority for the new Republican-controlled Senate next year would be to pass a bill authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline, setting up an early confrontation with an Obama Administration hesitant to ignite opposition from its green supporters.

“We’ll be starting next year with a job-creating bill that enjoys significant bipartisan support,” said McConnell.

Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a top Republican on the Energy Committee, said that the bipartisan measure was important as it would “basically set the table” for the new Congress. Both McConnell and Murkowski pledged that the bill would be open for amendments and acknowledged the fear that senators could bring unrelated ones that could sink the bill. Their hope is that most senators would prefer “regular order” instead of tactics that limit rank-and-file members’ influence. Many senators, including some Democrats, grew frustrated with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid for limiting the amendment process to protect vulnerable members of his party during the midterm cycle.

“When we say it’s open for amendments, it’s open for amendments,” said Murkowski. “Santa Claus is going to be keeping me awake, not worrying about what’s going to come.”

Authorizing the Keystone XL pipeline has been a dream for senators from the Great Plains to the Gulf of Mexico. In her failed reelection bid, Louisiana Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu fell one vote short of rallying enough of her fellow Democrats to pass the bill a few weeks ago.

The 1,179-mile pipeline has been blocked for years despite a State Department report concluding that it would not have a significant effect on greenhouse gas emissions. But study also found that it would create a small number of permanent jobs—around 50—and was published before a dramatic drop in oil and gas prices that could boost environmentalists’ opposition of the pipeline. The Keystone pipeline’s fate could also be taken out of Congress’ hands entirely, depending on a Nebraska court case that could alter its path down the heart of the country.

TIME Congress

Senate Confirms U.S. Surgeon General Despite Gun-Control Support

Vivek Murthy
Vivek Murthy testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 4, 2014 Charles Dharapak—AP

Illinois Senator Mark Kirk is the only Republican to confirm Murthy

The Senate confirmed Vivek Murthy as U.S. Surgeon General on Monday despite concerns he was underqualified and too outspoken on gun control to be the top spokesman on public-health matters.

Many Democrats praised the 37-year-old Murthy, an attending physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor at Harvard Medical School, who had been waiting since mid-November of last year to be confirmed.

“As ‘America’s Doctor,’ Vivek will hit the ground running to make sure every American has the information they need to keep themselves and their families safe,” said President Obama in a statement. “He’ll bring his lifetime of experience promoting public health to bear on priorities ranging from stopping new diseases to helping our kids grow up healthy and strong.”

Republicans and a few Democrats — Murthy was confirmed with the bare minimum of 51 votes — have balked at his nomination over comments in which he tied the politically charged issue of gun control as a health care issue. On Monday, the National Rifle Association confirmed that it would “score” the vote, threatening future support for members over his confirmation. West Virginia Democratic Senator Joe Manchin said in a statement that he opposed Murthy not because of his medical qualifications, but because of questions over whether or not he could “separate his political beliefs from his public health views.”

Illinois Senator Mark Kirk is the only Republican Senator who voted to confirm Murthy.

Murthy is best known for co-founding in 2008 Doctors for Obama, which turned into a pro-Obamacare group after the law passed in 2009. He has been endorsed by major health organizations like the American Heart Association and will be the first Indian American at the position.

Murthy was aided by a rule passed by Senate Democrats last year that required only a majority vote for presidential appointments, compared with the 60-vote supermajority of years past. His chances of being confirmed this year were also boosted over the weekend by the efforts of Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz and others, who kept the Senate in session to protest President Obama’s executive action on immigration deferring the deportation of up to 5 million undocumented workers.

That gave Senate majority leader Harry Reid the opportunity to clear legislative hurdles before the chamber quit for the year and a new Congress.

TIME Congress

How Congress’ Spending Bill Will Keep School Lunches Salty

Getty Images

School cafeterias were supposed to cut sodium in half by 2022

A massive spending bill is heading to the President’s desk this week, and along with it comes a stab at the healthy school food policies championed by First Lady Michelle Obama.

The 2010 healthy food guidelines that call for more fresh fruit and whole grains and fewer French fries and sugary treats on the lunch trays of America’s students have sparked ire in cafeterias for the past couple of years. Hashtags were spawned (#ThanksMichelle). Congress was petitioned. Op-eds were penned. And, on Saturday, those calling for a rollback of some provisions of the Hunger Free Healthy Kids Act got their wish.

Though the program remains in tact and schools cannot opt out of it as some Republicans had hoped, 2015 spending bill includes language that curbs any further reduction of sodium in school lunches “until the latest scientific research establishes the reduction is beneficial for children.” By the 2022 school year, schools were required to serve meals with less than 740 mg of sodium—roughly equivalent to a six-piece chicken nugget kid’s meal with a side of fries at Burger King and about half of the levels currently allowed under the current guidelines.

The spending bill also allows states to get exemptions a requirement to serve 100% whole grains (though half of grains served must be whole) they show they’re facing “hardship” in efforts to implement it.

School Nutrition Association communications director Diane Pratt-Heavner says the association, which represents 55,000 school lunch providers, appreciates Congress for recognizing the challenges districts have faced in efforts to implement all of the rules.

“A few of the rules are so inflexible,” says Pratt-Heavner, who notes that over 50% of school lunch providers expect to spend more on healthy meals than they’ll make this year. “They’re driving kids away from healthy school meals and threatening the stability of the programs.”

It’s been nearly a year since the Government Accountability Office found that over 1 million students opted out of the school lunch program under the government’s changes to school meals. Without the starchy snacks like pizza and French fries dominating lunch trays, 1.6 million students who pay full price for lunch decided not to. The new changes, Pratt-Heavner says, will allow school lunchrooms to have the same flexibility as households.

“Schools, just like families, should be able to occasionally serve white rice or white tortillas,” she says.

The White House has not cried wolf over the changes, either. The Hill reports Sam Kass, who will soon leave his position as White House chef, called the changes a “minor adjustment” they consider a “real win for kids and parents” in light of other efforts to roll back the standards.

Health advocates including the American Heart Association, however, have blasted the sodium changes, which it says, “threatens the future health of our children, ”while citing a 2010 Institute of Medicine report that recommended incremental changes to high-salt school meals in order to reduce health risks like high blood pressure.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 90% of American kids ages 6 to 18 eat too much salt, and 1 in 6 kids currently have elevated blood pressure.

“It’s important to note that the average school lunch provides nearly enough sodium for the entire day, the American Heart Association said in a statement. “Without this reduction, more of our children will develop high blood pressure that could lead to heart disease and stroke before they reach adulthood.”

Either way it goes, the changes introduced via the spending bill are just a first step. Next year, the Hunger-Free Healthy Kids Act will need to be reauthorized, providing an opportunity for the implementation of more stringent rollbacks.

TIME Congress

Congress Approves Trillion-Dollar Spending Bill

House Speaker Boehner Holds Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony For WWII Era Civil Air Patrol
From Left: Speaker of the House John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell gather onstage prior to the start of a Congressional Gold Medal Ceremony for World War II era Civil Air Patrol members on Dec. 10, 2014 in Washington D.C. Drew Angerer—Getty Images

Everyone on Capitol Hill won a little and lost a little

The Senate passed a $1.1 trillion government funding bill on Saturday night after days of fiery speeches on the chamber floors from both liberal firebrand Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Tea Party darling Sen. Ted Cruz. But despite some pushed back deadlines and last-minute drama, the plan provided by the parties’ leadership earlier in the week prevailed.

The top appropriators—Kentucky Republican Rep. Hal Rogers and Maryland Democrat Barbara Mikulski—and the party leaders—Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker John Boehner—can claim that they did what’s best for the country, averting a government shutdown in a bipartisan way. Indeed the bill was a compromise: Republicans continued to whack away on domestic discretionary funding, while Democrats won concessions on potential riders to the Environmental Protection Agency and secured billions in funding to combat Ebola and hundreds of millions more to fight ISIS, two key requests from the Administration.

“This bill puts the Affordable Care Act on secure financial footing for the first time in a long time,” said Reid in a statement Saturday night. “It gives our military the tools it needs to combat ISIS. It addresses the rape kit backlog, helping police and prosecutors prevent sexual assault. It increases funding for student loans. It ensures that President Obama’s executive action protecting families can move forward. And it provides funding to fight the Ebola epidemic.”

Neither conservatives nor liberals got what they wanted, but they got what they needed: a message to send back home. Those conservatives in deep red districts who oppose the President’s executive actions on immigration—deferring deportations for up to five million immigrants who came to the country illegally—now have a vote to draw a contrast between themselves and an unpopular president. As Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell left the Capitol Friday night, Texas Senator Ted Cruz stayed to throw up legislative hurdles, nabbing headlines after some had claimed his influence had been tamed by establishment figures like House Speaker John Boehner, who led the chamber to avert a government shutdown Thursday night on a close, but bipartisan vote. Even though Cruz’s strategy left his Republican colleagues furious—Reid got to push through more of Obama’s nominations with the extra time spent in the Capitol this weekend—Cruz once again raised his profile through an anti-Obama position. He has already made the choice that, as a first-term senator, his influence lies more on C-SPAN than in the party cloakroom.

“This is what voters demanded in November,” said Dan Holler, spokesman for the conservative Heritage Action, of Cruz’s weekend pushback. “The election was a referendum on Obama and his planned executive amnesty.”

Liberals, who have a tighter hold on the Democratic Party after the midterms thinned out their conservative counterparts, can now prove their bona fides sticking up for the little guy as they voted against provisions raising the amount donors can donate to the parties and another that facilitates Wall Street derivatives trading. Warren and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi found that despite losing those battles, their core supporters were pleased simply with drawing attention to their issues.

“It’s not just about wins and losses, it’s about if they’re willing to fight for it, not just talk about it,” said Josh Goldstein, an AFL-CIO spokesman. “Senator Warren and Leader Pelosi—they’re proven leaders willing to fight for it. They stand with workers, that’s why we stand with them.”

In essence, the wings of both parties, which draw their strength from picking fights, found good ones.

“Democrats won,” said Holler. “It is curious that some Republicans are unwilling to pursue the mandate they were given. Cruz, [Alabama Republican Sen. Jeff] Sessions, [Utah Republican Senator Mike] Lee and others are though. Guess which side is more popular with the base of the party?”

“They’ve done damage to Dodd-Frank but they haven’t done irreversible damage,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, a Warren ally and future top Democrat on the Banking Committee, referring to the 2010 landmark financial reform law. “And that’s Wall Street’s game and it’s our job to make sure they don’t win all the time and to protect the public…The battle continues.”

 

TIME Senate

Senate in Rare Saturday Session as Shutdown Threat Looms Again

Senator Sherrod Brown Holds Hearing On "Regulatory Capture" With New York Fed's Dudley
From Left: Senator Elizabeth Warren a Democrat from Massachusetts speaks with Senator Joe Manchin a Democrat from West Virginia during a Senate Banking Subcommittee in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 21, 2014. Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg/Getty Images

The House passed a bandaid spending bill Friday but the Senate is locked in a showdown

For its grand finale before it concludes early next year, the 113th Congress is staging yet another procedural showdown in a rare Saturday session, as lawmakers work to pass a bill to fund the federal government before it runs out of money at midnight.

The House of Representatives Friday averted a government shutdown with a temporary spending bill to fund the government for five days, but the Senate must still approve the bill. The Hill has been locked in debate over a $1.1 trillion spending bill to fund the government through September of next year.

The Senate had hoped to close up shop for the year Friday, but lawmakers could not come to agreement after some Republican senators demanded a vote on a measure protesting President Obama’s controversial immigration order issued in November, which shields some four million undocumented immigrants in the United States from deportation.

“Before the United States Senate is a bill that does nothing, absolutely nothing to stop President Obama’s illegal and unconstitutional amnesty,” said Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

Some Democrats, however, are worried about changes to financial regulatory laws included in that measure, McClatchy reports. “A vote for this bill is a vote for future taxpayer bailouts of Wall Street,”Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D—Mass.), a longtime advocate for financial regulation reform, said Thursday.

If lawmakers cannot come to an agreement on a temporary spending bill by midnight Saturday the federal government will run out of money. A final vote on the full $1.1 trillion spending bill could come on Monday.

[McClatchy]

TIME financial regulation

Why It Matters That Congress Just Swapped The Bank Swap Rule

US-ECONOMY-FINANCE-BANKING-BOFA
NICHOLAS KAMM—AFP/Getty Images

A controversial change to the Dodd-Frank financial reforms trades more risk for taxpayers to get more profits for banks and their corporate clients

Banks may be officially allowed to get back in the casino business again soon.

Hidden as a rider in the $1.1 trillion continuing resolution omnibus bill—the hulking “Cromnibus”—that passed the U.S. House last night are a few, measly pages that pack a whole lot of punch. They repeal what’s known as the Lincoln Amendment in the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

The Lincoln Amendment, which you’ll also see referred to in other articles as “Section 716″ or the “the swaps push-out rule,” was, if not Dodd-Frank’s heart and soul, than at least one of its vital organs. It says, basically, that banks can make risky bets on behalf of paying clients, but if they screw up and get into trouble like they did in 2008, then taxpayers aren’t responsible for bailing them out.

It did that by requiring that banks set up two big buckets: one that was backed by taxpayers (FDIC-insured), and one that was not. The idea was that banks would keep all of their normal, plain-vanilla banking activities in the FDIC-insured bucket, and then “push out” swaps and other risky contracts, like exotic, customized, and non-cleared derivatives, into the other bucket. (Swaps are contracts that allow banks to hedge their risks or speculate on everything from interest rates to currency prices. Credit default swaps contributed to blowing up the economy in 2008. Warren Buffet once called these sorts of derivatives “financial weapons of mass destruction.”)

If the Cromnibus passes the Senate in the form that it passed the House last night, the Lincoln Amendment will be officially repealed. Dead. Kaput. Gonzo. The swap casino will again operate with the tacit backing of taxpayers. If markets go haywire, as they did in the last financial crises, taxpayers may again find themselves forced with a choice between bailing out the casino owners and a systemic financial collapse.

The Bipartisan Policy Center, which is generally in favor of financial regulation, says people shouldn’t overreact to that news. It released a statement yesterday saying, in essence, “Relax, we still have the Volcker rule,” a reference to a different provision of Dodd-Frank that bans banks from using taxpayer-backed accounts to make their own bets on the future movement of markets.

But as the folks at the Roosevelt Institute point out, that argument doesn’t really make sense. It’s like saying that because you’re wearing a t-shirt, you don’t need a sweater. It’s true that the Lincoln Amendment and the Volcker rule overlap in some ways, but their coverage is different.

The heart of the Volcker rule is all about proprietary trading, which is when banks trade for their own profits and not on behalf of their customers. It’s similar to the Lincoln Amendment in that it doesn’t specifically outlaw anything; it says that banks can proprietary trade all they want, but if they get into trouble, taxpayers aren’t bailing them out. Lots of people in the financial world think that the Volcker rule is the most important part of Dodd-Frank, but it doesn’t cover everything.

The Volcker rule, for example, doesn’t apply to all risky financial products, like exotic and uncleared credit default swaps. That’s where other regulations, including the Lincoln Amendment, took up some of the slack. Unlike the Volcker rule, the Lincoln Amendment did apply to exotic and uncleared credit default swaps, and required that banks “push out” swaps into a bucket that was not backed by the taxpayers.

The best argument for not freaking out about the repeal of the Lincoln Amendment is that it wasn’t nearly as strong as its drafters intended it to be. The final version had loopholes the size of Montana. For example, while the Lincoln Amendment was intended to lasso all risky instruments, by the time all was said and done, it really only applied to about 5% of the derivatives activity of banks like Bank of America, Citigroup, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo, according to a 2012 Fitch report.

In other words, the banks are in the casino business whether or not the Lincoln Amendment is repealed. But liberal Democrats, including Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts as well as a handful of conservative Republicans, like Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, say 5% of protection is better than none at all. They oppose the Cromnibus so long as that rider is in it.

House Republicans, for their part, say eliminating the Lincoln Amendment would streamline regulation, boost the economy, and “protect farmers and other commodity producers from having to put down excessive collateral to get a loan,” according to a summary statement. The bill is expected to pass the Senate, rider and all.

TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: December 12

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Eel drones are the future of undersea warfare.

By Patrick Tucker in Defense One

2. This interactive map points the way to breaking gridlock in Washington and reconnecting Americans to the policy conversation.

By the Hewlett Foundation Madison Initiative

3. Fear of terrorism has radically changed America’s public spaces.

By Susan Silberberg in The Conversation

4. By dividing Muslims, ISIS might be sowing the seeds of its own destruction.

By Mark Mardell in BBC

5. Yesterday, the FCC boosted access to free, high-quality internet at America’s public libraries, opening the door to digital opportunity for all.

By Reed Hundt in the Aspen Idea

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

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