Growing disillusionment with a hostile Congress creates fears Social Security can’t be fixed

This morning we stumbled across a pretty bleak opinion column over at the Washington Post.

I conclude, reluctantly and dejectedly, that it’s time to face the unpleasant facts. The past decade demonstrates amply that our political process is not capable of the kind of decisions that are necessary. The temptation to savage anyone proposing safety-net reform (the sine qua non of any serious fiscal rescue, really the only issue that matters) remains electorally irresistible and invariably effective.

The author is, of course, talking about Social Security reform.


Like many of us, the author has watched the political events of the past several years.  Just a month and two days into the new year, we’ve all seen the political divide in this country reach depths many of us didn’t think was possible.   What once may have only been an intense legislative and philosophical rift between parties is now painfully personal after the events of January 6th. 

What has followed has been an unprecedented flurry of calls for resignation, investigation, direct attacks and accusations on Twitter, the circulation of wild conspiracy theories at the highest levels of government, and the general feeling we’ve reached a point where bipartisanship is no longer possible.

Given what we’re all watching happen right now, it’s hard to believe we can get back to a place of legislative normalcy, let alone the level of legislative functionality and cooperation we need to be at to make the sweeping changes to Social Security required to keep it solvent.  Legislators have NEVER been enthusiastic to update Social Security law, but now it seems like expecting those updates any time soon is as unreasonable an expectation as it’s ever been.

But there’s how things seem and how things are.  That’s a very important distinction.

Things seem hopeless, and when things seem hopeless, the temptation to throw up our hands is our downfall.  The more we do it, the more we’re comfortable accepting that having no choice IS the only choice.  And when the public gives up on an issue, where is Congress’ motivation to address that issue?

The way things ARE, though, is Congress has a job to do.  We did not elect them to hurl barbs at each other on Twitter.  We did not elect them to sit at their desks and watch our country’s most critical programs collapse over the next thirteen years.

Imagine your house catches on fire, you walk out to watch it from the front lawn, and you wait for it to burn for thirteen years before you call the fire department.

“There was nothing I could do!  It was on fire!  There was just so much going on!”

Your insurance company probably isn’t going to accept that.  And the public shouldn’t accept the suggestion that there’s nothing that can be done to fix Social Security in the same time frame.

Here’s an even better one: imagine you work in an office, your coworkers all hate each other, and you collectively get no work done whatsoever on project you knew would be due in thirteen years. 

Does your boss say one year in, “I don’t know what to do—they just refuse to work with each other.  I guess we won’t be getting that project finished.”

No.  Your boss would likely just fire everyone and find employees who would do the work.

In this case, the American public is that boss.  Congressmen are civil servants.  We pay them to perform a job.  And an important part of that job is doing what needs to be done to maintain the programs that sustain millions of Americans.

We really can’t stress enough: Congress has until 2034 to shore up Social Security’s finances.  The Trust Fund has enough money in reserves to continue to pay full scheduled benefits for the next thirteen years.  Although in the grand scheme that isn’t a lot of time to act at all, it’s PLENTY of time for Congress get the ball rolling on discussing bills already on the table that will restore solvency.

And the idea that Congress has no options to enact change that won’t be incredibly detrimental to beneficiaries and working Americans is only true to an extent.  It is very likely at this point we will have no choice but to raise payroll taxes, either across the board or on a select group of wealthy Americans. 

While this could be viewed as a negative impact on those still working, we already know MOST Americans SUPPORT those taxes.  The public has said time and time again they’d be willing to contribute more if it means retirees receive their benefits now and into the future.  Payroll taxes aren’t like income taxes or sales taxes—Americans view payroll taxes as contributing toward a future benefit.

And as beneficiaries are concerned, even at this late stage, they are not guaranteed to suffer benefit cuts.  The Social Security 2100 Act, for example, does NOT include Social Security benefit cuts of any kind (in fact, it expands benefits).  It just increases revenue to the Trust Fund via increased payroll taxes.

We will agree with the writer that it could be really beneficial for the Social Security Administration to disclose this situation to retirees.  Absolutely nobody would be hurt by having all the information and being given the opportunity to consider pursuing other means of bringing in retirement income. 

But we can’t forget about the 40% of current day beneficiaries who have long since retired and live almost solely on Social Security alone.  These retirees have already claimed their benefits, they may not be able to return to work, and their available income to invest in other forms of passive income might be limited to nonexistent. 

Allowing Social Security to reach the point where benefits are drastically cut WILL cause an explosion of poverty, food insecurity, homelessness, illness, and a massive financial burden on working Americans who will need to provide for their loved ones.  We either attack Social Security’s funding shortfall right now or we deal with the consequences of it later—and those consequences will be much more of a burden than a slight payroll tax increase would be now.

It’s just not an option that we just let this hostile partisanship ruin Social Security.  It’s not.  And anyone who was elected owing to promises they made to fix Social Security NEEDS to be held accountable when those fixes don’t come.

So while we understand where this sentiment is coming from—it’s hard to be optimistic about anything as far as Congress is concerned right now—it’s not a sentiment that’s going to help anything.  When we start truly believing Congress is incapable of doing its job at the most fundamental level, we lower the bar.  And the bar is far easier to lower than it is to raise again.

Call your Congressmen.  Write your Congressmen.  Email them.  And if Social Security is important to you, watch your elected officials over the coming years and make sure you vote with their words and activities on Social Security in mind at the next midterms.

And above all, don’t get caught up in the bleakness of our current situation.  We CAN fix Social Security. And we WILL do it.