Later today the Republican-led House of Representatives will vote on “Plan B,” the latest unsatisfactory proposal put forward by Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) to avoid the fiscal cliff. Boehner’s plan would protect most Americans, except for millionaires, from a tax hike. But even this is a poor fix because it ignores the real problem: spending.
While lawmakers from both parties squabble over tax rates, a fiscal crisis is looming on the horizon. Entitlement programs — Social Security and Medicare to be precise — have unfunded obligations of $48 trillion. By comparison, the fiscal cliff carries a price tag of roughly $650 billion. As lawmakers talk about another debt-limit increase, they need to think seriously about America’s long-term obligations.
So what can our elected leaders do about it?
The first step is recognizing the problem exists, which for some Democrats is mighty difficult. A story in Politico reveals that liberals are having “heartburn” and doing “some painful soul-searching” over a relatively simple fix to Social Security’s annual cost-of-living increases.
Heritage’s David John, senior research fellow in retirement security and financial institutions, believes the time is ripe for a few Social Security fixes. Any fiscal cliff settlement, John writes in a new Heritage report, should address Social Security’s grim financial future.
Over the next 75 years, Social Security will owe an estimated $11.3 trillion more in benefits than it will receive in payroll taxes. It has been running deficits since 2010, according to the Social Security Administration.
To make up the difference, Social Security will need “massive annual injections of funding in addition to what the program receives from payroll taxes,” John writes. Don’t believe the liberal myth that Social Security is on solid financial footing. The numbers don’t lie. It’s very much part of the spending debate facing Washington.
The longer Congress delays action, the harder it will be to solve the problem.
There is already bipartisan support for two of the three ideas recommended by John. All three are simple fixes that should be included in any fiscal cliff deal.
1) Fix the annual inflation adjustment. The current index used to determine Social Security’s yearly cost-of-living adjustment does an inferior job of measuring inflation. A better solution is a “chained” index, which more accurately measures inflation. This change would immediately result in savings for Social Security. And it’s easy to do — the new index can be implemented quickly and without complication.
2) Increase the full retirement age. Americans are living longer thanks to advances in medicine. And yet Social Security has not kept pace. The important number here is the how much longer people who have reached age 65 will live. That number is trending upward, by nearly a year, according to recent government data. Congress should gradually increase the full benefits age to 68 and then index it to life expectancy in the future.
3) Focus benefits on those who most need them. It’s time to return Social Security to one of its original purposes: protecting seniors who face economic hardship. In order to make Social Security a true insurance program, upper-income seniors would face reduced benefits or none at all. This would strengthen the program’s finances and prevent future tax hikes on younger workers.
There’s more to do beyond these three solutions, but they would provide a solid foundation for future reforms. Heritage’s plan, Saving the American Dream, redesigns Social Security and other entitlement programs to guarantee assistance to those who need it — and keep the American dream alive for future generations.