Social Security is often referred to as the “third-rail” of politics because only those that are willing to risk their political careers will dare touch it. President-elect Donald Trump seemed to particularly embrace this analogy during the presidential campaign as he promised not to cut Social Security, but rather indicated that a booming economy would fix the program’s looming insolvency.
Others in Congress are trying a different approach -- Congressman Tom Cole (R-OK) and Congressman John Delaney (D-MD) are testing the third-rail, noting that the risks of doing nothing are far worse. At a recent Committee for Responsible Federal Budget meeting on the Hill, Congressmen Cole and Delaney presented an optimistic outlook on solving Social Security’s problems and the political reward that would come with such success. Congressman Cole even called fixing Social Security a potentially “easy win.”
Both Congressmen agree Social Security’s core problem is math. Currently, the program is providing more benefits than it receives in taxes, and is approaching fiscal insolvency for Disability Insurance by 2023 and the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance by 2035. Congressmen Cole and Delaney believe that establishing a bipartisan commission is the first step towards solving Social Security’s problems. Much like a sports franchise scouting prospects to rebuild its team, these Congressmen are trusting that the process of building a commission will produce the desired end-results.
Congressmen Cole and Delaney introduced the The Social Security Commission Act in 2015, which would establish a bipartisan commission modeled after the Greenspan Commission, a commission formed in 1981 whose research and report led to Congress passing the Social Security Amendment of 1983. These amendments were vital in prolonging the Social Security trust fund and prevented automatic, non-discriminatory benefit cuts.
In a similar way, the goal of this new Social Security Commission will be to create an atmosphere in which ideas to solve Social Security’s long-term funding problems can be researched and discussed. The commission would be comprised of 13 members, seven selected by the majority party and six selected by the minority party, and would require a supermajority of 9 votes for any proposal to get out of the commission. This last rule requires that bipartisanship be a functioning aspect of the commission. If a plan is approved by the commission and the legislation based on the commission’s plan is introduced in Congress, Congress would then have 60 days to perform a simple up or down vote.
While many applaud the bipartisan and optimistic spirit of Cole and Delaney’s plan, there are some who doubt its potential effectiveness. As Dr. Edward Berkowitz at George Washington University points out, the success of the Greenspan Commission was contingent upon variables that seem absent in today’s political landscape. The Greenspan Commission was successful because it had strong bipartisan leadership, faced a pressing crisis, and had guiding from a President that campaigned on Social Security reform.
Today, the political landscape is distinguishably different than it was during the Greenspan commission in three major ways. First, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and other minority leaders have yet to show interest in joining a bipartisan commission on Social Security. Second, the combined Social Security trust fund is not exhausted until 2034, so Congress does not feel the same degree of political pressure. Finally, Social Security reform was not a prominent topic during the presidential campaign for any major candidate. These three factors limit the likelihood of a successful commission.
However, even if the new Social Security Commission is not successful in providing Social Security recommendations to Congress, the commission could still be helpful. Creating the atmosphere where policymakers and politicians can engage in an open dialogue absent of political attacks and ridicule could be a beneficial step in fixing Social Security.
Congress must find leaders on both sides of the aisle willing to tackling this impending issue before it becomes even more burdensome. President-elect Donald Trump and the Republican leadership must come to terms with, and address the problems facing the United States, not just politically popular ones. At some point politicians must take responsibility and make tough decisions, even if that means touching the “third rail.”