WASHINGTON - In a bipartisan show of 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 in the coming days.
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 cosponsors, even after a conservative group criticized it as a "decisive step in expanding the welfare state."
"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."
Dozens of supporters of the bill, including parents of children with Down syndrome, were in the House chamber as lawmakers cast their votes, waiting in anticipation after years of pushing the legislation. William Daroff of the Jewish Federations of North America, which cochairs the Jewish Disability Network, called this a "tremendous" day.
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 with a disability by age 26 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.