TO COVER the swollen deficit that it and the president continue to incur, Congress must once again raise the debt ceiling it primly persists in maintaining. The ceiling is meant to be proof of a frugality that does not exist. A sop to conscience that has to be increased, it first provides the cleansing opportunity to confess and denounce the excesses that made the increase necessary. It also serves as a vehicle for proposed reforms, as in the case of Gramm-Rudman. This time it will apparently be used to complete the splitting-off of Social Security from the rest of the budget.
This proposal has been made to seem the height of virtue. By stripping away the Social Security surplus, which is supposed to be "saved" to finance the retirement of the baby boomers, it serves to underscore the size of the true or structural deficit in the general funds, as well as the extent to which the government has come to rely on the regressive Social Security tax to finance its general activities. This unmasking of the deficit is thought likely to step up the pressure on both branches to reduce it, and who could be against that?
The proposal is also an effort, sponsors say, to reassure the vulnerable elderly by walling off and protecting the Social Security trust fund from becoming a pawn in the budget process. But a) it doesn't protect the fund; quite the contrary, and b) in the sense that the sponsors mean it, the fund shouldn't be protected.
Social Security is already nominally off budget, but nonetheless counted in calculating the budget deficit. What these proposals say -- one passed the House yesterday, and another is pending in the Senate -- is that it should not count toward the deficit either. But the effect of that, despite some protective provisions to the contrary, would be to make the fund more vulnerable, not less. Since Social Security wouldn't count, there would no longer be a fiscal penalty for the popular steps of cutting the tax or raising the benefits. In addition to the bad precedent it sets in Balkanizing the budget, the proposal becomes a dangerous invitation to free fun.
At the same time, Social Security now represents a fifth of government spending, and its beneficiaries -- a seventh of the population -- ought to be made to contribute like beneficiaries of other programs to reducing the deficit. Defenders say Social Security is already contributing by the surplus it is running, but the beneficiaries aren't paying the tax that produces this. Splitting it off doesn't make it impossible to extract a contribution from Social Security -- a larger share of benefits could still be made subject to the income tax, the best of the alternatives -- but it does make it harder.
The deficit is a drag on both government and the economy. The only ways to bring it down are to increase taxes and cut spending. This proposal does neither; indeed in some ways it would work against both. Once again you have Congress taking refuge from substance in procedure and accountancy. In this case it would do damage besides; it is time to stop.