An options paper drafted by the staff of the National Commission on Social Security Reform suggests that the system's short-range problems are so large they can only be solved by some combination of four fundamental alternatives.
Those alternatives are speeding up already scheduled increases in Social Security taxes, cutting future cost-of-living benefit increases, forcing federal and other government employes to start paying into the system, or using income taxes to help finance it.
Other methods, the study indicates, simply will not produce the $150 billion to $200 billion in extra funds that commission experts estimate the combined old-age and disability trust funds will need from 1983 through 1989 to stay afloat.
The commission will meet Thursday through Saturday to vote on recommendations.
Meanwhile, the Social Security Administration announced that in 1983, the Social Security tax of 6.7 percent each for employers and employes will be levied on the first $35,700 of each worker's wages. This year the wage base is $32,400. By law, it rises automatically each year the same percentage as wages. The maximum tax under the new base would be $2,391.90 next year, up from $2,170.80 this year.
The SSA also announced that beneficiaries 65 to 69 will be allowed to earn up to $6,600 without loss of benefits next year, those 70 and older will have no limit on earnings, and those under 65 will be allowed to earn up to $4,920.
The staff options list shows that the commission and Congress have relatively few alternatives as they seek ways to shore up the system, which in fiscal 1983 will pay out about $175 billion to 36 million people.
The commission staff, headed by former Social Security chief actuary Robert J. Myers, has listed dozens of proposals that would raise new money or cut future costs.
But the commission is estimating that the old-age fund will need about $200 billion more from 1983 through 1989 than it is now scheduled to receive under tax schedules, if the economy does not improve sharply.
The commission list shows that one way to raise lots of money quickly would be to shift to 1984 the Social Security tax increase already scheduled for 1990. This would means that the tax, now 6.7 percent each for employers and employes, would jump to 7.65 percent in 1984. This step alone would yield an extra $135 billion from 1984 through 1989 and would solve two-thirds of the immediate financing problem.
Another tax proposal could also raise substantial money: make Social Security benefits subject to income tax and then channel the proceeds back into the trust fund, saving $134 billion over the period ending in 1989, or tax half the benefit for each person and save $56 billion.
Requiring Social Security participation by all newly hired federal, state and local employes and for all employes of nonprofit organizations would bring in $35 billion.
Limiting cost-of-living increases to 4 percent in 1983 and 1984 and then setting it at 1.5 points below the percentage increase each year in wages would save $180 billion from 1983 to 1989; limiting it to 75 percent of the percentage increase in the consumer price index would save $128 billion through 1989; other variations would save less.
Some of the other long-range changes listed, such as reducing the basic benefit gradually for future retirees, or raising the age at which a person can retire and receive full benefits from 65 to 67 or 68, would have to be phased in over time to be palatable and would, therefore, raise little money over the short run.
Such changes would help the long-range problems of the system, which will require more benefits as the population ages, but not help much now, the figures show. Thus, getting grants or loans from the Treasury would be the only other way to collect large amounts of money in the short run.
As the commission options list came out, one member, former Social Security commissioner Robert Ball, an appointee of House Speaker Thomas P. (Tip) O'Neill Jr. (D-Mass.), was known to be circulating to colleagues a three-part plan to raise about $185 billion from 1983 through 1989 by advancing the 1990 tax increase to 1984 and letting workers deduct their Social Security tax outlay from their income for federal income tax purposes; bringing government and nonprofit workers into the system, and making the self-employed pay the full cost of their Social Security coverage instead of only three-quarters, with an income-tax offset.
Two organizations also came forward with proposals of their own.
The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank, said wage-earners should be allowed to place all or part of their required Social Security contributions into expanded Individual Retirement Accounts or "super-IRAs" offered by banks, insurance companies and other such institutions that would provide retirement benefits and insurance against death and disability.
Workers collecting Social Security or near retirement would have their benefits guaranteed, but the current system would in effect eventually be phased out in favor of private insurance and savings instruments.
The Employe Benefit Research Institute, an organization supported by businesses and others participating in private pension systems, said Social Security's short-term problems could be solved by a combination of compulsory coverage for government and other workers not now covered, moving forward tax increases already scheduled in law, and treating half the benefits as regular income for federal tax purposes, with the proceeds channeled back into the trust funds.