(Dow Jones) Interpreting the Bible and retirement policy typically don't mix.
Unless you are J. Mark Iwry. The son of a Dead Sea Scroll scholar and a descendant of mystical 17th-century rabbi Baal Shem Tov, he also is a uniquely powerful Washington wonk, almost single-handedly guiding the nation's approach to retirement accounts and policy.
Iwry's job, as the Treasury Department's senior benefits official, is to figure out what the government can and can't do to boost retirement savings. He is currently promoting "auto-IRAs," the top retirement item in the Obama administration's budget, which will be introduced to Congress within a few weeks.
Overhauling retirement-plan policies involves interpreting arcane and often ambiguous provisions in the U.S. tax code, then getting employers and lawmakers to go along with proposed changes.
"He's sort of like a biblical scholar," says Norman Stein, professor of law at Drexel University. "He's interested in trying to deal with the technical and policy together, to get the technical to serve the policy."
People on both sides of the political divide cite Iwry's ability to get opposing parties to find common ground. "He's a pro-participant pragmatist," says David Certner, legislative policy director for Washington-based advocacy group AARP, which supports the auto-IRA.
Over the past decade, Iwry (pronounced Ee-vree) has been instrumental in developing legislative and regulatory changes to increase savings, including promoting automatic enrollment in 401(k) plans; letting the IRS deposit tax refunds directly into Individual Retirement Accounts, or IRAs; establishing the saver's credit for lower-income workers; and creating a sort of mini-401(k) for small-business employees, who now have more than three million accounts.
Some retirement experts complain that these kinds of changes are too incremental. "These reforms may increase the proportion of workers in retirement plans but haven't resulted in meaningful accumulations of benefits," says Karen Ferguson, director of the Pension Rights Center, which is seeking more systemic changes
Though Iwry long has been an influential retirement-policy operative, most people outside Washington couldn't pick him out in a line-up. He hasn't been harpooned on the Jon Stewart show, like Peter Orszag, the White House budget director. He hasn't made it to People magazine's 100 Most Beautiful People list, like Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff. Nor has be been a consultant on "The West Wing," like Gene Sperling, counselor to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner. Iwry has worked with all three on retirement issues over the years.
The low-key Iwry, 60 years old, is known for nothing more eccentric than a tendency to talk on two phones at once, and a habit of speaking in complete paragraphs, with subordinate clauses and footnotes.