NEITHER Social Security receipts nor benefits are to be included in the 1992 budget the president sends to Congress early next year. Nor do the agreed new deficit targets take account of the Social Security surplus. They are targets to be met by the rest of government, and if they are missed the president and Congress must look there and not to Social Security to bring fiscal policy back into line.
The stated purpose of this regrettable fragmentation of the budget is to "protect" Social Security from being raided for fiscal purposes -- as if so large a program for the elderly and disabled needed additional political protection. In fact, the new arrangement is more likely to have the opposite result. It will now be easier to raid and weaken the Social Security trust funds because the parties will be able to do so without adding to the nominal deficit. There used to be a fiscal reason for not taking the popular step of cutting Social Security taxes or raising benefits. On paper, though not in fact, that reason and the discipline it represents will disappear.
The new budget rules include provisions meant to protect the trust funds. But Congress has shown the ability to overcome budget rules as easily as it writes them. One proposal likely to recur is to cut or eliminate the Social Security earnings test, which reduces what are, after all, supposed to be retirement benefits for those who continue to work and whose earnings exceed stipulated amounts. This costly step is perennially proposed in the name of helping the needy elderly, encouraging people to work and adding to the experience of the work force. But studies show its likeliest effect would be to supplement the incomes of high earners who would keep working anyway.
A second idea much discussed is, of course, to cut Social Security taxes. These are regressive and rose in the 1980s while the progressive income tax was cut. In the short term, though not the long, they are higher than needed to meet benefit payments. The economy appears headed into a recession. What better cure? Democrats like the idea on fairness grounds, as a stimulant and proof that they no less than the Republicans can advocate tax cuts. For Republicans, the attractiveness is the other way around. The idea provides them with fairness insurance while continuing to transfer as many public resources as possible to the private sector.
The problem is that it is false accounting to divide Social Security from the rest of government. The true deficit is the net of all taxes and spending. To cut taxes or increase spending is to increase the deficit no matter what the accounting conventions show -- or hide. Greater generosity on the Social Security side of the curtain will not just throw the trust funds into actuarial imbalance but vitiate this year's budget agreement. The government will continue to put too much upward pressure on interest rates and have too few resources to do its job.
If Congress wants to replace part of the Social Security tax with a more progressive source of funds, that's fine. But please, after all the blood that was spilled this year, no increase in the deficit. At more than a quarter trillion dollars a year even counting the Social Security surplus, the government is providing fiscal stimulus enough.