IT NOW APPEARS that the inflation rate may be so low it will not trigger a cost-of-living increase for Social Security recipients next January. That would slice several billion dollars off the deficit. Congress should be grateful. It is, but apparently only for the chance to vote as the elections approach to give recipients an increase anyway.
It is the wrong thing to do. You would think the blatantness of it might embarrass them, that for once on this issue they might be tempted to vote no. Lots of luck. Members are already lining up to be patted; the triggering mechanism, one said imaginatively the other day, "penalizes the elderly for our success in curbing inflation."
The law reads, no cost-of-living increase unless inflation from he third quarter of one year to the third quarter of the next is 3 percent. This year so far it is about 1 percent. Most forecasters think it unlikely another two percentage points will come along before the August-October period.
The increase wouldn't be lost forever; recipients would just get a larger one the following year. In delaying the increase, Congress would also be putting off increases in the Social Security wage base -- the part of wages to which the Social Security tax applies -- and in the premiums Medicare recipients have to pay for so-called Part B insurance, covering doctor bills. All these are hitched together. Politically, there is thus a good side as well as a bad to delay. But the panic with which Congress approaches Social Security is such that these refinements are likely to be lost. Remember 1984, also an election year, when there was a much smaller chance a cost-of-living increase would not be triggered. The president beat Congress to the punch, asking that there be an increase anyway. Congress hastily agreed -- unnecessarily, it then turned out.
You have here a ridiculous system. Social Security benefits, which go to a seventh of the population, are a fifth of the budget. There are problems with this fifth. The elderly, to whom the benefits predominantly go, now have a lower poverty rate than the population as a whole. Because benefits were fully indexed to the high inflation of the 1970s while wages fell behind, recipients did better than the taxpayers supporting them. At least it would be fair to let a law that is already generous take its course.
Yet the parties have scared one another off. For fear of demagoguery and retribution at the polls, members will not impose on Social Security even a breath of the discipline they are now painfully bringing themselves to impose on the rest of the budget. Social Security's immunity -- their cravenness -- means it is that much harder to reduce a destructive deficit to protect other and -- let it be said -- equally worthy federal programs from the knife. Grow up, Congress.