This week on the podcast, we examine proposed Senate legislation to create Congressional “rescue committees” that could propose cutbacks to Social Security and Medicare benefits.
My guest is Nancy Altman, the president of Social Security Works, one of the leading progressive advocacy organizations for Social Security. Nancy also brings a unique vantage point as a scholar and historian of Social Security. And she also served on the staff of the Greenspan Commission, which succeeded in passing significant reforms to Social Security back in 1983.
Senator Mitt Romney of Utah is the sponsor of the TRUST Act, a bill I consider to be ironically named, because it could lead to benefit cuts for these programs through a secretive closed-door committee process. The TRUST Act has been rattling around Congress for a while, but now it may be included in whatever pandemic relief bill the Senate Republicans wind up proposing. Yes, you heard that right – in the middle of a pandemic, Senate Republicans may propose a review of Social Security and Medicare that could lead to cutting these vital programs.
The TRUST Act would require the U.S. Department of the Treasury to report to Congress on the health of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds within 45 days of passage. Congress would then appoint bipartisan committees to come up with recommendations by June of 2021. Then, lawmakers would be required to take an up or down vote on the proposals, with no amendments allowed.
Ok, first – let’s stipulate that these trust funds have problems that need to be addressed.
The Social Security trust fund is on track to be exhausted in about 15 years – at that point, it would have sufficient revenue coming in the door to pay roughly 80 percent of promised benefits. The Medicare hospital trust fund – which pays for Part A – is on track to be exhausted in 2026 – and it could be sooner than that due to the pandemic.
But we don’t need reports from Treasury to know these things – the Social Security and Medicare trustees issue exhaustive, authoritative financial health reports annually. And we don’t need new analysis of ways to reform the programs – numerous studies, reports and Congressional hearings have been held in recent years, featuring testimony from experts representing all political and policy perspectives.
But there’s a good reason why Republicans want this debated away from the public eye, especially where Social Security is concerned. Simply put, they want to advance ideas that the public doesn’t support, like higher retirement ages, means testing and a stingier annual cost of living increase. That is clear from their own legislative proposals in recent years, and the ideas they push in bipartisan policy settings, such as the 2016 report issued on retirement policy by the Bipartisan Policy Center. But public poll after public poll has shown that given the choice, the public would prefer higher taxes over benefit cuts.