In a recent interview, Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) shared the bleak prospects of Social Security reform for the near future.
“I have no optimism whatsoever.”
His words should serve as another reminder to voters that the impending consequences of the financial imbalances in this vital program have escaped the attention of lawmakers once again.
The trustees of the Social Security Trust Funds report that roughly two-thirds of the problems we face today stem from one issue: Congressional inaction.
So, it is only sensible for all Americans to ask: how is it possible that Congress ignores this vital program session after session?
The unpleasant answer is: candidates can become elected officials without facing a single question about Social Security’s long-term stability. That needs to change once the GOP candidates convene in Milwaukee on Aug. 23 for the first debate for the nomination for president.
It is not only the job of candidates to provide answers about the future of Social Security, it is the job of the moderator to ask hard questions about the future of a system on which most Americans depend.
The program isn’t in great shape. By the time that the next president elect reaches the Oval Office, the program will have nearly $24 trillion of promises to existing voters for which it does not expect to generate cash.
When it comes to Social Security reform, there is only one fact on which every expert agrees: the longer we wait the harder it gets. Yet we elect Congress after Congress which wrings hands and twiddles thumbs.
Last year, the program generated an additional $800 billion in unfunded liabilities during 2022 simply to mark the passage of time. This is the cost of doing nothing, and it is apt to be higher this year if Sen. Cassidy is correct about the priorities on the Hill.
At this point, consensus remains elusive. Democrats are more than $10 trillion apart from each other on what benefits the program should provide. (See Larson’s plan and Sanders’s plan.) Republicans on the other hand are content to ‘save and protect’ Social Security, provided that no one asks them what a saved Social Security might do.
We are talking about trillions of dollars of consequences falling on those least able to adapt to economic change. Someone has to ask a question.
To illustrate, candidate Mike Pence has said that it might be time to think about giving younger workers the ability to keep some of their payroll tax dollars in personal accounts. The obvious question to Pence is: when will you produce a plan that adds personal accounts to Social Security for voters to consider?
Every Republican candidate has promised to protect the benefits of those in or near retirement. As it is, someone turning 79 today expects to outlive the system’s ability to pay scheduled benefits. So each candidate should be able to answer how they would raise the necessary revenue to keep the promise to those voters who are 78 and younger.
There is one question that every candidate whether Republican or Democrat should answer. What happened to Social Security during the Trump years?
To recap, Trump in 2016 promised not to cut benefits, and countered, “We’re going to grow the economy. It’s going to grow at a record rate.” It was the holy grail of politics: a painless solution to the questions about Social Security. Grow the economy.
Voters as a whole loved that promise back then, but they now have to live with the consequences. Over the course of Trump’s term, the program generated roughly $8 trillion in promised benefits for which it is not expected to have cash under current law.
Trump was right: the gap between what the program has promised and what the program expects to pay did in fact grow at a record rate.
Voters need to accept the hard truth about our form of government. Politicians are not leaders. They are the apex followers of the animal kingdom. They will not provide answers to questions that aren’t being asked.
On whole, voters ask far too few questions, and readily accept answers no matter how implausible. That needs to change, and it needs to change now.
Brenton Smith is a policy adviser to The Heartland Institute.