A picture of Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr.
Robert C.
Democrat PA

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  • Able Act

    by Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr.

    Posted on 2014-02-27

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    CASEY. Madam President, I wish to discuss the ABLE Act, which is a piece of legislation that has been the subject of enormous and substantial bipartisan support both in the Senate and in the House.

    We know that a lot of families have relied upon and have really benefited from the so-called 529 plans--a section of the IRS Code that allows families to save tax-free for education. What we are trying to do with the ABLE Act is to replicate that opportunity so that families who have a loved one with a disability--it may be one disability or it may be more than one, but every family who has a loved one with a disability should have the opportunity to save just as they might for education in a tax-free manner, in a tax-advantaged way.

    We have been working on this legislation for a number of years. Senator Richard Burr, the senior Senator from North Carolina, and I have led this effort in the Senate. As I said, it would build upon that 529 model for education.

    The ABLE Act enjoys the support of 63 Senators, 63 cosponsors. In the House, it is up to 335 Members. That is why we mentioned that over 400 Members of Congress agree. That is why the hashtag #passtheABLEact! is important to highlight.

    There are few measures which come before the Senate or the House which enjoy that kind of bipartisan support. In the Senate there are no more than 5 bills that enjoy the support of 63 or more Senators. We are pleased about that, but we are not done yet. We still have a long way to go to get this legislation done.

    So as important as it is to highlight the numbers, it is also important to highlight the people who did the hard work to get us there. I want to commend Members of the House and Senate, but the ones who are worthy of even more substantial commendation would be a lot of individuals, some of whom are here in Washington this week: The National Down Syndrome Society. I was just with folks from the National Down Syndrome Society this morning over on the House side. They allow a Senator to go across to the House side. Our current Presiding Officer knows this, as she served there. Once in a while we get to go over there, and they were kind enough to invite us over there this morning. They have done remarkable work on this legislation and are continuing their advocacy today, even as we speak. We are grateful for their work.

    Autism Speaks is another great organization that has done enormous work to bring us to where we are today, and the Arc as well. So many Americans know a lot about the Arc, the National Down Syndrome Society, as well as Autism Speaks. So we are grateful for that support, but we still have a ways to go.

    One of the best ways to ensure this legislation will get over the goal line--I don't want to use too many football analogies here--but if we are getting close, even if we are in the so-called red zone, we are not in the end zone yet. We have a ways to go. But one of the best ways to make sure that happens is to talk about the real people that legislation like this would affect.

    I mentioned the number of supporters we have, but I didn't mention the full name of the bill: Achieving a Better Life Experience. That is what the acronym ABLE stands for. But I like to think about it in this way as well.

    I have a constituent, Sara Wolff, who is with us here today. She knows the rules don't allow me to indicate where she is today, but she is very close by, and she is with us today. I am grateful Sara is with us because she is a great example of someone who has a disability but is very able. She has a disability, but on a regular basis--hour after hour, day after day--she finds a way to overcome her disability or to manage it as best she can. She is a remarkable speaker. She gives as many speeches in a week as I give, and I am an elected official. She is well-known in northeastern Pennsylvania where we live. We live in the same county, but I live in Scranton and she lives in Moscow. She works for the O'Malley & Langan Law Offices. She is a law clerk there.

    But as smart as she is on the law and these issues, probably the most significant part of her whole personality is the dynamism she brings to issues. She is a dynamic person. She does something few of us do well-- even people who work here as elected officials--because she knows how to engage with people. She knows how to deliver a message. She knows how to be candid and direct but to do it in a way that is engaging and warm and friendly. So once in a while I will take instruction from Sara Wolff. But even more than that, I take inspiration from her.

    Sara is someone who is very able and talented and committed, but she is among the many Americans--Pennsylvanians in my case--asking us to pass this legislation so that if a family such as hers wants to begin to save to help pay for a whole range of services for an individual with a disability, they can do so in a tax-advantaged environment in order to save over time, and do it in a manner that doesn't put them at a disadvantage from a tax standpoint down the road.

    So Sara is a great example of why the ABLE Act should pass, and she is doing more than her share to make sure that it does pass. So I am grateful to Sara Wolff for doing that, and I am especially grateful to people like Sara, who like a lot of us at some point in our lives have to overcome a tragedy. Sara lost her mother Connie not too long ago to a sudden and rapid illness. But she has been able to deal with that tragedy and still help us day in and day out to get the ABLE Act passed.

    I will highlight one more story and then I will conclude. Angie Cain is a 28-year-old who lives in Indianapolis, IN, and like Sara Wolff she lives with Down syndrome. Angie has five different jobs and works 5 days a week. She works paid positions at Kohl's on Mondays and at the YMCA on Fridays. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays she volunteers for several organizations, including a hospital, a Down syndrome office in Indiana, and the Alzheimer's unit of an assisted living facility.

    Unfortunately, like so many Americans with disabilities, Angie is unable to save enough to cover her future needs--the same problem I just highlighted--if we don't change the law with the ABLE Act. Under current law, she must have less than $2,000 in assets in order to be eligible for Supplemental Security Income. That doesn't make a lot of sense, and that is one of the reasons we have to change the law. Angie is, therefore, forced to limit the amount of money she earns and work multiple paid and volunteer positions in order to benefit from the steady benefits that SSI provides.

    Angie would like to live independently and, at the same time, she knows that she has limitations in that regard because without adequate savings and income, because of the current state of the law, she is forced to live with her family. She would like to be independent. That is something we all yearn for at some point in our lives. Angie's family is worried about her living and financial situation, especially down the line, years from now, when [[Page S1227]] her family may not be with her any longer.

    Stories such as Angie Cain's story, the story of Sara Wolff, and individuals across the country like Sara and Angie are the reason we have to pass the ABLE Act. They don't need a lot of help. They need just a tool, one tool in their toolbox, to be able to reach down and have the opportunity to have their families save in a way that will help them down the road.

    The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 19 percent of Americans live with one or more disabilities, 12 percent live with severe disabilities, and many of them are unsure about their ability to cover their basic expenses in the future because they are unable to build adequate savings.

    We talk a lot about how folks should save. We encourage people to save for college. We encourage families to do that, and we encourage people to save for all kinds of things. Just the principle itself--to save and to conserve--is a good one to espouse and to advocate. But we have to give, in this instance, families an opportunity to save for a loved one with a disability or, in some cases, more than one disability. So whether it is Sara Wolff or Angie or others, we have to give them an opportunity to do that and give their families that opportunity.

    When you see that number of Members of Congress--400--coming together, I believe it is not simply a question of whether this will pass but only a question of when the ABLE Act will pass. I hope that will take place in the next couple of months and that we can get every single Member of the Senate and House to join us.

    This is one major thing we could do this year to show the American people we get it when it comes to one challenge that a lot of families face.


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