IRAs are intended to allow workers to put away modest sums of money each year in order to help finance a middle class retirement. The savings are tax deferred, but there's a legal limit -- now $6,000 -- on how much each IRA holder can contribute annually.
Now top Democrats on the Budget, Ways and Means, and Education and Workforce Committees want to know how people of Romney's wealth can end up with 100,000 times that much money in a single IRA, and how much the tax and investment strategies they employ cost the Treasury in revenue every year.
In a letter Thursday to senior officials at the Treasury and Labor departments, Reps. George Miller (D-CA), Sander Levin (D-MI), and Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) want to know: Is this legal? How easy is this strategy to get away with? How much does it cost the government every year? And what can be done to end the practice?
"[W]e are alarmed to learn that wealthy taxpayers may be taking advantage of a tax subsidy that is designed to provide for retirement to instead accumulate massive amounts of tax-sheltered assets," the lawmakers write. "Given your commitment to the rule of law and equitable treatment of taxpayers, we hope that you will evaluate this issue carefully to ensure that a select few are not being provided with a loophole that allows for wrongful tax evasion."
The lawmakers' inquiry has a substantive, policy basis -- but the politically charged question is also a shot across Romney's bow.
"[R]ecent news reports indicate that Bain Capital allowed service partners and employees to co-invest in investment deals via tax-preferred retirement accounts ... in some cases providing one-fourth of the total capital in the investment deals," the lawmakers write.
They go on to speculate about how it worked.
"Some experts have expressed the view that the investments made through these accounts and plans may have been assigned a nominal value that was significantly lower than the fair market value of the investments, perhaps using a liquidation value methodology. In particular, this strategy has been cited as one explanation for how presidential candidate Mitt Romney's IRA is valued at between $20 and $101 million despite the annual contribution limits that apply to tax-preferred retirement accounts and plans."
To translate, Romney could have skirted the annual contribution limit if his IRA invested heavily in Bain projects by dramatically lowballing the value of the stakes.
If the administration is forthcoming -- and why wouldn't it be? -- its answers to these questions will be general, not about Romney specifically. But those answers will broadly apply to Romney and his IRA, and could bring some clarity to one technique people of Romney's wealth can use to amass even more.
You can read the entire letter below.