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Congressmen propose new commission to fix Social Security

(Bradley C. Bower/AP)

Reps. Tom Cole (R-Okla) and John Delaney (D-Md) introduced a bill Friday that would create a bipartisan commission to improve Social Security.

Cole, a senior Republican on the House Appropriations Committee, is partnering with Delaney, a junior member of the House elected in 2012, to propose a 13-member Social Security Commission that would have a year to come up with a list of recommendations for improving the program. As it stands, the Social Security Administration has enough funds to pay full benefits through 2033, according to the latest trustees report.

After then, the administration will only be able to pay about 75 percent of scheduled benefits through 2087. The shortfalls for the Social Security Disability Insurance program are more immediate, with beneficiaries facing a benefit cut as early as 2016 if Congress fails to act.

"The nice thing about acting now is we can make very small changes and strengthen the program for 75 years," said Delaney in a phone interview. "If we wait, we can still make changes but they would have to be drastic changes."

A number of lawmakers have been proposing ways to improve the Social Security program, but it's not clear how likely it is that any of these proposals will come to fruition. Two weeks ago, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) announced a broad plan to reform America's retirement system that included raising the retirement age for younger workers, scaling back the growth of benefits for wealthy seniors and eliminating the payroll tax for people who continue to work after reaching full retirement age.

Delaney said he is personally in favor of increasing funding for Social Security benefits by raising the maximum taxable income and introducing a new threshold to increase payroll taxes paid by higher earners. There's some evidence that Americans would back Delaney's approach. As for Cole, he says he is in support of gradually raising the retirement age and changing the way cost of living adjustments are calculated. Any final recommendations would be created by the commission.

The Social Security program has not been changed substantially since the 1980s, when a bipartisan commission led by Alan Greenspan in 1981 called for increasing the payroll tax, gradually increasing the retirement age and introducing a partial tax on benefits, among other adjustments. At least two key differences set that instance apart from the commission being proposed today: During the 1980s, concerns about the health of the Social Security program were more immediate, with some estimates saying the trust fund could be depleted by 1983, the year in which the changes were eventually approved. And that commission was created by President Reagan, not by Congress.

More recently, the Simpson-Bowles commission created in 2010 also proposed three main changes to Social Security, such as raising the taxable maximum on income to 90 percent of all income, slowing the cost-of-living adjustments and raising the retirement age. But that proposal ultimately did not muster enough votes in Congress.

Under the bill introduced Friday, the commission would have a year to create a list of recommendations for making the Social Security trust fund solvent for 75 years. Twelve members of the committee would be appointed by leadership from both parties in the House and Senate (two of the appointees must be non-elected experts); the 13th appointee would be named by President Obama.

Recommendations would then need to be put up for a vote before the House and the Senate. “At the end of the day most Americans believe in Social Security and most Americans want to make it work and are willing to make a sacrifice in order to make it happen,” said Cole. “This is at least an effort to get the discussion going.”