US capitol in Washington DC with a Social Security card and money
United States capitol in Washington DC with a Social Security card and money
(Photo: iStock via Getty Images)

Trustee's Report Reminds Us: Social Security's Future Is on the Ballot

If benefits were suddenly slashed, not only would members of Congress lose re-election, they likely wouldn’t be able to appear in public without being screamed at and chased down the street!

Every year, Social Security’s Board of Trustees issues a report detailing Social Security’s long-term financial outlook. This year’s report, like all its predecessors, shows that Social Security’s future is a question of values and choices, not affordability. It is a reminder that Congress must take action on Social Security sometime in the next 11 years — and our country’s two major political parties have very different visions for our Social Security system.

Democrats want to protect and expand Social Security, and pay for it by requiring millionaires and billionaires to contribute more of their fair share. Republicans want to slash Social Security’s already modest benefits, while giving massive tax handouts to the ultra-wealthy.

These competing visions should be front and center in voters’ minds because the trustees report projects that Congress must take action to prevent Social Security’s benefits from being automatically reduced by 17 percent in 2035.

There is no question that Congress will act. Around one in five Americans receive monthly Social Security benefits. That is one in three households. If benefits were suddenly slashed, not only would members of Congress lose re-election, they likely wouldn’t be able to appear in public without being screamed at and chased down the street!

The real question isn’t whether Congress will act, but what action it will take. We know what Democrats will do if they control Congress and the White House, because their position is open and transparent. It is clearly spelled out in legislation that has been introduced in Congress, in President Biden’s budget which states plainly that he supports those legislative efforts, and in the 2020 Democratic Platform.

These proposals have broad support within the Democratic Party, from progressives to moderates. They are also bipartisan in the way that matters — overwhelming support from Democratic, Republican, and independent voters.

Republicans are less open about their position, but a recent budget released by the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a group that comprises about 80 percent of House Republicans (including every member of Republican leadership), reveals the truth. It slashes Social Security benefits by $1.5 trillion in just the next 10 years. The budget’s cuts include raising the retirement age and decimating middle class benefits. The very same budget also includes trillions in tax cuts for the wealthy and giant corporations!

The RSC budget, while cloaked in vague and intentionally misleading language, is still more honest than usual. Generally, Republicans don’t openly endorse Social Security cuts, because they know how unpopular they are even with their own voters. Instead, they talk in Orwellian language about “saving” or “strengthening” Social Security. They want Americans to think that we can no longer afford Social Security, despite the ridiculousness of that claim, in the hope that their constituents will be grateful — not furious — when they receive at least some of their earned benefits.

Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, was uncharacteristically honest when he recently said, “There is a lot you can do… in terms of cutting” Social Security. Knowing how unpopular cuts are, Trump generally denies he wants to cut benefits. When he was president, though, he included Social Security cuts in every one of his budgets. And prior to running for president, he called for raising the retirement age and privatizing Social Security while labeling it a Ponzi scheme. He has also advocated cutting Social Security’s dedicated funding. This could lead to even deeper benefit cuts down the road, but Trump knows cutting taxes is more popular than cutting benefits.

Trump and his fellow Republicans recognize the unpopularity of their positions. That’s why many of them seek to lure Democrats to join them (hold hands and jump, as they often phrase it) in cutting benefits behind closed doors so that they can share the blame or, even better, confuse voters into blaming Democrats.

Fortunately, the vast majority of Democrats are not taking the bait. But the danger is there. Every so often, Congress must pass legislation to prevent the nation from defaulting on its debts. If the United States ever did default, it would trigger a world-wide economic catastrophe.

The last time Congress voted to avoid default, Republicans tried to hold Social Security hostage, demanding benefit cuts in return for their votes. Fortunately, President Biden called their bluff and then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy folded – infuriating many of his House colleagues.

The next Congress will need to vote to raise the debt ceiling again. And to avert another attempt to take Social Security hostage, it matters who controls the House, Senate, and White House.

If Democrats retake the House of Representatives, Hakeem Jeffries will be speaker. Jeffries will ensure that the House passes a bill to raise the debt ceiling with no cuts to Social Security or any other vital benefits. And President Biden will unquestionably sign it. Indeed, he has promised to protect Social Security against cuts.

Moreover, Jeffries is a cosponsor of legislation to protect and expand Social Security. As Speaker, Jeffries will certainly bring that legislation up for a vote. When that happens, Republican members of Congress will be in a bind. They won’t want to require their billionaire donors to pay more, they won’t want to vote against Social Security, and they won’t want to offer their own alternative.

If the American people are clear on where their members stand and vote accordingly, Congress will enact legislation to protect and expand Social Security well before 2035. Once that happens, the annual trustees report will reveal that Social Security can pay all earned benefits for the foreseeable future.

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