On Retirement

Update on Social Security reform

With the Social Security trust fund scheduled to run dry in 2034, a congressional panel holds hearings, but no action is expected this year

Mar 26, 2019 @ 11:31 am

By Mary Beth Franklin

Well, it's a start. A House panel held hearings in mid-March on a bill that would expand Social Security benefits and stabilize the long-term finances of the nation's premier retirement system.

But don't get too excited. The Social Security 2100 Act, first introduced in 2014 and reintroduced in 2017, now has more than 200 Democratic co-sponsors but zero Republican support.

This is the first time the legislation has been the subject of a congressional hearing. Why now? After years of Republican control, Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., the bill's sponsor, is chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security. But even if the legislation eventually works its way to the House floor and is approved by the Democratic-controlled House, it would be dead on arrival in the Republican-controlled Senate.

If Congress does nothing, the Social Security trust fund is expected to run dry in 2034. If that happens, there would only be enough revenue from ongoing payroll taxes to pay 79% of promised benefits, resulting in a 21% across-the-board cut for all beneficiaries, according to the 2018 Social Security and Medicare Trustees' Report.

No one expects the worst to happen, but Social Security reform will require bipartisan support, and the sooner lawmakers tackle the problem, the better.

Social Security benefits have become increasingly important as traditional pensions have disappeared and many Americans have failed to save enough for retirement. More than 62 million Americans already receive Social Security benefits and every day, another 10,000 baby boomers become eligible for retirement benefits.

For nearly two-thirds of beneficiaries, Social Security represents the majority of their income, and for more than one-third, it is the source of more than 90% of their income.

"Doing nothing isn't an option," Mr. Larson said as he opened the hearing, which he promised would be the first of many.

Generally, Democrats want to increase Social Security benefits and raise taxes. Republicans oppose tax increases and want to eliminate restrictions on how much people can earn while collecting benefits before full retirement age.

Some Republicans also support eliminating reductions of Social Security benefits for public employees. The Windfall Elimination Provision and the Government Pension Offset rule reduce, or in some cases eliminate, Social Security benefits for workers who didn't pay FICA taxes during their government service, but who also worked long enough in the private sector to qualify for Social Security or who are married to workers who are entitled to benefits.

But just as in 1983 — the last time Congress reformed the Social Security program — both sides will have to compromise. The initial round of hearings provided a glimpse of some proposed changes that could eventually become law.

The Democratic-backed Social Security 2100 Act would slightly increase Social Security benefits for all recipients beginning in 2020 and would switch the cost-of-living adjustment formula to one that more closely reflects the spending patterns of seniors.

The bill would also increase the threshold for taxation of Social Security benefits. Currently, up to 50% of benefits are taxable for single taxpayers whose adjusted gross income plus one-half of benefits exceeds $25,000, and up to 85% of benefits become taxable when AGI plus one-half of benefits tops $34,000. The respective income thresholds for married couples are $32,000 and $44,000. These income thresholds have not been indexed for inflation since taxation of Social Security benefits began more than 35 years ago.

The Social Security 2100 Act would raise the income threshold for taxing benefits to $50,000 for single taxpayers and $100,000 for married couples. Up to 85% of benefits would be taxable at ordinary income tax rates. The 50% taxation formula would be eliminated.

The bill also would gradually raise the payroll tax for all workers by 0.1% per year over 24 years, from the current 12.4% to 14.8%. Employers and employees each contribute half of the payroll tax. Self-employed individuals pay the entire tax themselves.

And the bill would impose payroll taxes on earnings above $400,000. Currently, workers and employers are taxed on the first $132,900 of earnings. No payroll taxes would be due, initially, on earnings above $132,900 and below $400,000, but eventually that gap would narrow as the taxable wage base increased with inflation each year.

The subcommittee's top Republican, Tom Reed of New York, stressed that his party's mission is to secure the future financing of Social Security without tax increases. Instead, the GOP solution would focus on a "LEAP" into the future.

Mr. Reed explained that the LEAP acronym stands for: Long-term economic growth by encouraging work, not penalizing it; Equal treatment for public servants; Acting now to defend those future generations' benefits; and protecting the most vulnerable people through focused reforms.

The two parties are far apart on their initial approaches to Social Security reform and they have their work cut out for them. But at least they are talking about it for the first time in years, and that's a good start.

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