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Commentary: Time to save Social Security, Medicare is now

by Sun Sentinel Editorial Board (TNS) | June 22, 2022 at 3:00 a.m.

Sometimes good news comes with a cloudy lining.

That's the case with the recent announcement Social Security and Medicare are financially stronger than it was feared during the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

Why that's a problem: Anything that gives Congress even more time to procrastinate over what should have been done years ago is troublesome, especially when it concerns the nation's two most important social insurance programs.

As their trustees reported June 2, the Social Security Old-Age and Survivors (OASDI) Insurance Trust Fund will be depleted by 2035, a year later than the last estimate. Medicare's hospital trust fund will last until 2028, a two-year reprieve. And Social Security's disability fund will last longer as well.

If Congress doesn't act before then, new taxes going into the OASI fund will be sufficient to pay for only 77 percent of benefits.

Listen up, Congress. There are a lot of votes riding on that. The Social Security Administration says it pays benefits to nearly 70 million people.

Just six years from now, hospitals would take a big hit as well, inevitably affecting the quality of everyone's care.

More than 3.6 million Floridians depend at least in part on Social Security. The average monthly benefit nationally this year is $1,658. In some flourishing Florida communities, that barely pays the rent. Now think about suddenly losing $380 or more.

The last 10 annual trustees' reports have warned the OASDI trust fund reserves will be deleted sometime between 2033 and 2035, so Congress cannot claim to be unaware of the problem, nor unmindful of the political hazard in cutting earned benefits to that many Americans. But Congress harbors a lot of people who refuse to see beyond the next election lest their vision cost them votes. With such people, procrastination is a virtue.

Many of their strings, moreover, are pulled by people whose prosperity desensitizes them to the real lives of most Americans. Why should someone like, say, Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, care about Social Security when he's the Senate's wealthiest man? In 2020, the Center for Responsive Politics calculated the net worth of Scott and his wife at nearly $260 million.

As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Scott has proposed a radical plan that includes sunsetting most federal programs -- which would include Social Security and Medicare. He denies that he or any other Republican senator would actually let them expire and insists that programming them to self-destruct would simply compel Congress to stabilize them.

Remember, though, Congress is an example of minority rule rather than the representative democracy we all like to think it is. The constitutional malapportionment of the Senate, which guarantees every state two senators forever regardless of its population, is the big part of that problem. Republican senators haven't represented a majority of voters since 1996 but have had the majority of the Senate in 14 of the 26 years since then.

The gag rule commonly called the filibuster makes it worse. Originally, it required opponents of a bill to hold the floor and keep talking. Now, it prevents debate from even beginning without the support of 60 senators.

If Scott had his way, Social Security and Medicare would depend for their financial health, if not their actual survival, on the whims of as few as 40 of the 100 senators. Their price for taking action would very likely include raising the standard retirement age from the present 67 to 70 or even beyond. It would be the simplest "solution" without new taxes. But it would be the wrong one. As people age, many become less physically capable of their jobs. Some are laid off so younger people can be hired at lower salaries.

Means-testing benefits is another perennial right-wing fixation. That is wrong too, because it would turn Social Security into a welfare program rather than the universal insurance it's meant to be. That would be a step toward destroying it.

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said Scott's scheme wouldn't be part of the GOP agenda if they win the Senate this November. That assumes someone even more conservative doesn't replace McConnell.

What he hasn't said is what the Republicans actually would do to strengthen Social Security and Medicare. That would require looking beyond the next election. The Democrats aren't short of ideas, the most significant of which would extend the 12.4 percent payroll tax (split at 6.2 percent each between workers and employers) to higher earnings. It's presently capped at $147,000. Most of the Democratic proposals, though, envision paying for higher benefits with some of the new money. That does not seem to be a realistic prospect at present.

Whether Congress ever intended retirees to depend entirely on Social Security is a pointless argument. Today's reality is what matters. Fewer and fewer Americans have pension plans at work. Many employers have also cut back on their contributions to 401(k) plans.

According to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, half of all working-age families have $5,000 or less in retirement savings. That picture will only worsen during this time of high inflation.

Social Security is more than a safety net. It is indispensable to the nation's future. Every candidate for Congress should be forthright about how long they intend to postpone the reckoning and what they intend to do about it before the calendar reads 2035.

The nearer the deadline, the greater the pressure for a temporary fix instead of the permanent assurance that all workers and retirees deserve.

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