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ARLINGTON, Va. — Congress is attempting to revamp rules to the Thrift Savings Plan with legislation that would abolish the “open season” and let participants join or make changes any time they’d like.

Both houses of Congress have passed respective bills to get rid of the enrollment period restricted to the two open seasons a year.

But the bills differ in one way that separates the cost between the two by about $1 billion over the next 10 years, according to Congressional Budget Office estimates, causing a delay.

Meantime, the next open season for the TSP kicks off Friday, giving participants until the end of the year to enroll or make any changes to their plans. The TSP is the federal government’s version of the civilian work world’s 401(k) retirement and investment savings program. Earnings are tax deferred until participants withdraw money, usually after retirement.

The plan to eliminate open seasons “is a good thing” for participants, said TSP spokesman Tom Trabucco. “They give people more freedom. For instance, the open season that allows them to elect to contribute or adjust their contributions happens twice a year. Often, employees may get a step increase or a pay increase” and must wait until the open season to make any investments or changes, he said. “The bills allow them to make that election. We welcome and support both bills.”

The House version differs in that employers would begin adding matching contributions immediately for the civilian employees enrolled in the Federal Employees Retirement System, or FERS. The change outlined in the House version would have no impact on uniformed personnel since they do not have agency-matching contributions, Trabucco said.

Federal agencies match dollar-for-dollar the first 3 percent of participants’ contribution, and 50 cents on the dollar for the 4th and 5th percent. Those covered by FERS can contribute up to 15 percent their basic pay each pay period, up to the IRS cap of $14,000. Agencies automatically contribute an amount equal to 1 percent of employees’ salaries to a “G Fund” TSP account in the employee’s name when that employee elects not to participate.

Uniformed personnel can contribute up to 9 percent of basic pay and 100 percent of any incentive or special pay.

According to CBO estimates, the House version will cost $1.1 billion over 10 years, compared to the Senate version at $30 million over the same period. Both houses are working on the Senate version of the bill, S2479.

Because of the differences in the two bills, the measure has been sent to conference to have lawmakers iron out a final piece of legislation.

Representatives from lawmakers’ offices on both sides have said they hope the matter will be resolved before Congress adjourns in November.

“Sen. [Daniel] Akaka hopes the TSP bill is passed, and Congress does the right thing for federal employees,” said Paul Cardus, spokesman for the democratic senator from Hawaii. “He is aware of the cost differences and understands the federal deficit and the nation’s financial situation does not allow for the House version at this time. It would be fiscally imprudent to take action on the House version.”

In the interest of abolishing the open-season requirement, the House might adopt the Senate version because of the lower price tag, said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., chairman of the House Government Reform Committee.

The Senate bill is co-sponsored by Akaka and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

“Elimination of the open seasons in the Thrift Savings Plan is a top priority, both for myself and Sen. Collins, and we expect to have a bill to the President by close of the 108th Congress,” Davis said. “The House bill represents the ideal in that it eliminates open seasons for both employee and employer contributions, however, the ultimate goal is to get legislation that can pass through both houses.”

More information can be found at: www.tsp.gov or by calling the ThriftLine at 1-TSP-YOU-FRST (877) 968-3778. Callers outside the U.S. can dial (504) 255-8777, not toll-free.

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