The taxpayer-funded trust funds that pay for some of America’s most important social programs - including Social Security and Medicare - are in danger of going insolvent within two decades. New bills from Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT), Joe Manchin (D-WV), Todd Young (R-IN), Doug Jones (D-AL), and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) in the Senate, and Reps. Mike Gallagher (R-WI), Ed Case (D-HI), William Timmons (R-SC), and Ben McAdams (D-UT) in the House, look to kick Congress into action.
The Time to Rescue United States Trusts (TRUST) Act, introduced this week, would set up bipartisan, bicameral “rescue committees” in Congress. These committees would be tasked with advancing legislative recommendations to the full Congress that stabilize and strengthen four major trust funds in danger of insolvency: Social Security Old Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI), Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Medicare Hospital Insurance (HI, which funds Part A), and the Highway Trust Fund (HTF). Trustees project trust fund reserves to be depleted in 2035 for the combined OASI and SSDI funds, 2026 for HI, and 2022 for HTF.
The rescue committees, one per trust fund, would feature 12 members of Congress - three each appointed by the Senate majority leader, Senate minority leader, Speaker of the House, and House minority leader. The committees would be charged with four important goals: 1) avoid the depletion of the trust fund, 2) provide for 75-year solvency, 3) simplify the program in question, and 4) improve the program. Recommendations passed by the rescue committees would require bipartisan support (at least two members from each party), and would receive expedited consideration once advanced to the full House or Senate.
It’s clear Congress needs to start taking trust fund insolvency seriously. According to the latest report from the Social Security Board of Trustees, the combined OASI and SSDI programs served 63 million people at the end of 2018 (around one in five Americans). If the trust funds are depleted, the Board of Trustees estimates that benefits would automatically be cut 17 percent (if applied to all current and future beneficiaries). And according to the latest report from the Medicare Board of Trustees, the combined Medicare programs served 59.9 million people in 2018, and Part A would only be able to cover 89 percent of expenditures if the trust fund is depleted in 2026.
Though the Highway Trust Fund is a less-discussed topic among policymakers and politicians, a depleted trust fund would only further impact an area that almost everyone in Congress wants to dedicate more money to: infrastructure. With stakeholders warning that the nation’s roads and bridges are in disrepair, lawmakers risk making the situation worse by failing to address the chronically anemic Highway Trust Fund.
Time will tell how effective the rescue committees can be at shoring up America’s trust funds - after all, it seems the one thing Congress can agree to in 2019 is massive increases in federal spending. The TRUST Act is a promising step, though, and could focus lawmakers’ attention on the most at-risk social programs. Tens of millions of taxpayers may be depending on bipartisan solutions that put these programs on a responsible path.