Now, Social Security is sucking money out of the Treasury. This year, it will add a projected $46 billion to the nation’s budget problems, according to projections by system trustees. Replacing cash lost to a one-year payroll tax holiday will require an additional $105 billion. If the payroll tax break is expanded next year, as President Obama has proposed, Social Security will need an extra $267 billion to pay promised benefits.
But while talk about fixing the nation’s finances has grown more urgent, fixing Social Security has largely vanished from the conversation.
Lawmakers in both parties are ducking the issue, wary of agitating older voters and their advocates in Washington, who have long targeted politicians who try to tamper with federal retirement benefits. Democrats lost control of the House last year in part because seniors abandoned them in protest over Medicare cuts in Obama’s much-contested health-care act, and no one in Washington has forgotten that lesson.
In his February budget request, Obama ignored the Social Security blueprint put forth by his own bipartisan panel on debt reduction. During this summer’s debt-limit showdown, he endorsed the panel’s proposal to tie future benefits to a less-generous inflation index. But Obama took that idea off the table in September when he submitted recommendations to a special debt-reduction “supercommittee” now at work on Capitol Hill. Until recently, members of the supercommittee said, Social Security had rarely come up in their closed deliberations.
Social Security is hardly the biggest drain on the budget. But unless Congress acts, its finances will continue to deteriorate as the rising tide of baby boomers begins claiming benefits. The $2.6 trillion Social Security trust fund will provide little relief. The government has borrowed every cent and now must raise taxes, cut spending or borrow more heavily from outside investors to keep benefit checks flowing.
Many Democrats have largely chosen to ignore the shortfall, insisting the program is flush, citing the existence of the trust fund. They argue that fixing Social Security can wait, perhaps for years.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who is fighting to maintain control of the Senate, has been particularly outspoken. In March, as a bipartisan group of six senators was gaining attention for a push to draft a debt-reduction plan that included a Social Security fix, Reid summoned hundreds of activists to a rally on Capitol Hill. Fresh off a tough reelection campaign that turned in his favor after he accused his tea party opponent of wanting to “wipe out” Social Security, Reid exhorted policymakers to “leave Social Security alone.”