Bipartisan Plan to Fix Social Security Draws Criticism

XiFotos | E+ | Getty Images
  • Social Security's endangered trust funds could run out sooner thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic.
  • Now, one bill has been reintroduced that calls for forming bipartisan committees to come up with a plan to fix the program's solvency.
  • While some advocates say the process would not be transparent enough, others say time is running out to avoid unwanted changes to the program.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks with reporters about the minimum wage at the U.S. Capitol on March 1, 2021.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, speaks with reporters about the minimum wage at the U.S. Capitol on March 1, 2021.

Many Americans have one big question when it comes to their retirement: Will Social Security still be there when I need it?

Now, there are new signs that Congress could start to take steps to consider ways to repair the program.

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah last week reintroduced a bill called the TRUST — Time to Rescue United States' Trusts — Act, which aims to address the shortfalls faced by Social Security and other federal programs that rely on trust funds that are falling short.

That includes the Social Security Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund and the Social Security Disability Trust Fund, which together are projected to run out in 11 years, or in 2032, according to the legislation, which cites estimates from the Government Accountability Office.

Others are projected to run out even sooner. The Medicare Hospital Insurance Trust Fund is due to exhaust its reserves in five years in 2026. Meanwhile the Highway Trust Fund has just one year left.

Romney's bill would create bipartisan rescue committees dedicated to each of the endangered funds. Those groups would be tasked with writing legislation to implement changes that would extend the programs' long-term solvencies.

The committees would have 180 days to come up with their proposals. Any bills they report would get expedited consideration in both the House and the Senate.

This latest version of the TRUST Act has bipartisan support.

Republican senators who have signed on to the proposal include Todd Young of Indiana, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia, Rob Portman of Ohio, John Cornyn of Texas, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming.

Democratic sponsors in the Senate include Joe Manchin of West Virginia, Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona and Mark Warner of Virginia. Independent Sen. Angus King of Maine has also backed the bill.

But behind the bipartisan push is a real concern from advocates for Social Security expansion that the bill could ultimately lead to benefit decreases.

"The Romney plan is a way to cut benefits and leave very little fingerprints from members of Congress on how that is done," said Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, an advocacy group.

The bill would also circumvent the normal legislative process including hearings where outside witnesses could express their views, he said.

"Members of Congress should have the courage to have a discussion and a debate on Social Security and listen to all views and not rush something through that will be very damaging to beneficiaries," Richtman said.

The last time there was an overhaul to Social Security was in 1983. At that time, the changes that were put in place — including gradually raising the retirement age to 67 — were initiated by a commission led by Alan Greenspan, who later served as chairman of the Federal Reserve.

Today, the Social Security Administration's most recent estimates indicate its funds could run out as soon as 2035, at which point 79% of benefits will be payable. That evaluation was released one year ago, and does not account for the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The longer changes are put off to improve the system's solvency, the more dramatic any improvements will have to be, according to Shai Akabas, director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

Generally, that will include either benefit cuts, tax increases or a combination of both.

"I think the stalemate has gone on for far too long," Akabas said. "It's unfair to Americans who are trying to plan for their future."

"Social Security is meant to be the bedrock of retirement planning, but instead it's turned into one of the greatest sources of uncertainty," he said.

Another proposal that could get reintroduced is the Social Security 2100 Act, led by Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., which aims to restore the program's solvency into the next century through payroll tax increases, while increasing some benefits.

Experts expect the bill to be reintroduced once it is adjusted to coincide with President Joe Biden's promise not to raise taxes on anyone earning less than $400,000 in wages.

Bipartisan support ups chances

Meanwhile, the TRUST Act could be attached to several legislative efforts this year, including upcoming infrastructure and appropriations efforts, Akabas said.

The TRUST Act was included in the budget resolution, though that does not have the force of law because it is not signed by the president, he noted.

"Because of the bipartisan support this has, it certainly stands a chance of being considered," Akabas said.

Ultimately, it is up to those who are opposed to the proposal to come up with an alternative plan that could similarly garner bipartisan support, he said.

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