Social Security was a fact of life in 20th-century America, but it may soon reach a critical fork in the road.
In less than two decades from now, Social Security’s combined trust fund will be exhausted. If no action is taken to reform this major program, benefits will suddenly be indiscriminately reduced by 23 percent.
To begin to address this concern, Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., and Rep. John Delaney, D-Md., have proposed the Social Security Commission Act of 2015, which would create a bipartisan commission to resolve Social Security’s solvency challenges.
To succeed, such a commission should include an action-forcing deadline with enforcement provisions.
Every day that passes without Congress making reforms to Social Security, the reform options become more drastic and more of the burden is passed on to future generations. Yet Congress and the president continue to avoid the problem and push it down the road.
The goal of the Delaney-Cole commission would be to issue recommendations that extend Social Security’s solvency for another 75 years.
The commission would be made up of 13 members, with three being appointed by each of the House and Senate party leaderships, and the chair being appointed by the president. The commission would need a supermajority of nine votes to send its recommendations to Congress.
The idea for a bipartisan Social Security commission was inspired by the Greenspan Commission from the early 1980s. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan created the Greenspan Commission whose recommendations led to bipartisan support for the Social Security Amendments of 1983 that extended Social Security’s solvency for 50 years.
However, this newly proposed commission lacks the action-forcing moment that the Greenspan Commission had.
When the Greenspan Commission released its recommendations in January 1983, the Social Security combined trust fund was projected to run out of funds in July 1983—meaning benefit checks would not go out on time. Congress had motivation to accept the Greenspan Commission’s recommendations or otherwise face delayed or reduced Social Security benefit checks for beneficiaries.
The Delaney-Cole bipartisan Social Security commission lacks this immediate action-forcing moment to motivate members of Congress to adopt reforms. In its absence, members of Congress have little motivation or political cover to adopt benefit changes to a very popular program.
This commission could help to educate the public, which is desperately needed after a campaign that was predicated on misinformation in regards to Social Security.
The president-elect was off when he claimed in the campaign, “If we are able to sustain growth rates in [gross domestic product] that we had as a result of the Kennedy and Reagan tax reforms, we will be able to secure Social Security for the future.”
This simply is not true. Social Security problems arise not from poor economic growth, but primarily from demographic changes. Social Security relies on current workers financing benefits for current retirees.
Today, women are having fewer children and people are living longer, causing demographic shifts that strain Social Security’s finances. In 2016, the U.S. fertility rate fell to a record low.
The aging of the baby boomers means more individuals will be drawing Social Security benefits. By 2029, 20 percent of the population will be age 65 and older—up 13 percent from the current population.
Moreover, Social Security’s current benefit design means that benefits grow with wages and inflation. As the economy grows, benefits too will become more costly.
In the meantime, some lawmakers have begun introducing concrete proposals to reform Social Security. For example, Rep. Reid Ribble, R-Wis., introduced the Save Our Social Security Act, which included reforms that increased the payroll tax cap, raised the retirement age, and provided a minimum anti-poverty benefit.
While an imperfect bill—particularly because it increases Social Security’s size, instead of limiting the program by targeting benefits more effectively—it puts reforms on the table for discussion.
Recently, Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, introduced the Social Security Reform Act of 2016. The bill includes commonsense solutions such as gradually raising the retirement age, targeting benefits for those most in need by reducing benefits for spouses and children of high-income earners, and replacing the cost-of-living adjustment with a more accurate measure of inflation.
This plan presents a reasonable, targeted, and fiscally responsible approach to reform Social Security.
Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Obamacare, and other health care programs total 52 percent of all federal spending and they are growing rapidly. These programs are the main drivers of our nearly $20 trillion national debt. Tackling them will require strong political leadership.
At a recent event hosted by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, Delaney suggested pairing the Social Security commission to a deal to raise the debt ceiling in March.
Without any real enforcement, such a commission could be easily abused by Congress to save face when raising the debt ceiling with no meaningful cuts or reforms.
A Social Security commission could be helpful, but only if it includes action-forcing provisions. Otherwise, a commission will serve as an excuse for policymakers to say they are doing something about Social Security’s shortfalls without actually doing anything.