On Nov. 8, The Post published an op-ed column by Rep. Anthony C. Beilenson -- "Put Social Security on the Table" -- and followed up with an editorial urging the same position on Nov. 9. Both pieces would have been quite persuasive except for the omission of some critical facts.
Beginning in January, Social Security tax rates will go up another 0.36 percentage points for employees, with matching amounts from employers. Following these rate increases, the Social Security funds will grow rapidly, as they should, both because the system needs more of a cushion in case of a major downturn in the economy and to help meet higher costs later on when the baby-boomers retire. Fund growth -- an annual excess of income over outgo -- counts toward reducing the deficit. Thus, Social Security's contribution to deficit reduction under present law will be very large: $263 billion over the next five years under the middle-range estimate and $119 billion assuming quite poor economic performance -- much more later.
With these scheduled increases and a much smaller one in 1990 (0.14 percentage points), Social Security is estimated to be in close actuarial balance over the whole 75 years for which projections are made. If benefits are cut or income increased, it is true, the Social Security annual surpluses would be even higher than under present law and would show up as further reductions in the deficit. But this is quite impossible to justify, since the system does not need higher balances. In fact, raising revenues more than is currently scheduled invites benefit increases, and cutting benefits invites reducing revenues. Either way, over time, the deficit would be unaffected.
Social Security shouldn't be part of a deficit-reduction negotiation. The program is separately financed. The money for both benefits and administration comes entirely from deductions from workers' earnings with an equal amount paid by employers, plus payments by the self-employed on their own behalf and taxes on the benefits of higher-income beneficiaries. In return for these payments, the system is committed to pay specified benefits including protection against inflation, one of the most important features of the program. Since the commitments are very long-term, the benefit structure and its financing have always been considered separately from the annual budget process.
Changes have been made in Social Security in the past, and they undoubtedly will be again. But important changes have been made only after careful consideration and have been designed to take place gradually and usually only after Congress and the executive branch sought the advice of an outside citizens' advisory group, as provided by statute. The next advisory council is scheduled for 1989.
As a matter of policy the country may someday again want to increase benefits, reduce them or change the way the system is financed, but to make sense the changes should be on both sides of the benefit and income equation. If benefits go up, so should income. If benefits go down, income should go down too.
The current enormous contribution of Social Security to deficit reduction is a byproduct of the fund buildup needed for Social Security purposes. There is no way it can be increased further for the purpose of deficit reduction without playing fast and loose with the expectations of both present beneficiaries and contributors. Social Security should stay off the table.
The writer was Social Security commissioner from 1962 to 1973 and later was a member of the President's National Commission on Social Security Reform.