Today’s Social Security debate will lead to real progress

Biden speaks about his administration’s plans to protect Social Security and Medicare and lower healthcare costs, Thursday, Feb. 9, 2023, at the University of Tampa in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

The current debate over Social Security provides the first opportunity in decades to make progress on an issue about which the American people agree. Republican voters — together with Democratic and Independent voters — overwhelmingly favor expanding, not cutting, Social Security. If discussions happen in the sunshine, not behind closed doors, Congress will expand benefits and restore Social Security to long-range balance.

The transparent approach began at the recent State of the Union Address. During a rowdy exchange on Social Security, President Biden jocularly commented, “I enjoy conversion…as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?” Some have interpreted this as an unfortunate stalemate that will result in no action on restoring Social Security to long-range balance. 

But Biden was simply talking about not holding the must-pass debt limit hostage to benefit cuts. Now that the question of whether cuts will be part of Social Security legislation is out in the open, real progress can finally be made.

Contrary to conventional belief, it was the last few decades of trying to achieve a so-called “bipartisan, balanced solution” of benefit cuts and revenue increases that short circuited a reform package. That is because benefit cuts are opposed by at least 80 percent of the American people, according to numerous polls. Those same polls show overwhelming support for requiring the wealthiest to pay more. They even show support for everyone paying more, if that is what it takes to avoid cuts.

The real “bipartisan solution” is expanding Social Security’s modest benefits. New polling from Data for Progress shows overwhelming bipartisan support for increasing benefits and paying for it by requiring the wealthiest to contribute their fair share. Expanding benefits is supported by 85 percent of Democrats, 75 percent of Independents, and 72 percent of Republicans.

If politicians stop looking for a behind-closed-doors solution and commit to following the will of the people on this issue, as Biden and congressional Democrats are doing, that is when real progress can be made. I say that as someone who worked as Alan Greenspan’s assistant on the bipartisan commission that developed the 1983 Social Security amendments. 

A key member of the commission was the late Robert M. Ball, the longest-serving Social Security Commissioner and the world’s foremost expert on the U.S. Social Security system. At the time of his death in 2008, he was seeking to convince Congress to enact a package that involved no cuts, explaining:

“It’s the essence of responsibility, in my view, to insist on no benefit cuts….What was right in 1983 — a balanced package of benefit cuts and tax increases as part, roughly half, of the final agreement — would be wrong today.”

Among the many reasons it is wrong today are that the Greenspan Commission did its work before the disappearance of traditional pensions, decades of wage stagnation, and today’s extreme income and wealth inequality. Because of those factors and others, our nation is now facing a retirement income crisis, where too many Americans will never be able to retire and maintain their standards of living. 

Social Security is the solution. It is the most universal, secure, efficient, and fair part of the nation’s patchwork retirement income system. It’s one shortcoming is that its benefits are too low. Cutting them will exacerbate the retirement income crisis. Expanding them will address it.

Fortunately, President Biden and his Democratic colleagues now recognize that. They are solidly against all cuts and in favor of expansion. Standing in the way, though, are Republican politicians who are still hoping to cut benefits either through a murky process change, such as a sunset, or behind closed doors without leaving fingerprints. Once they realize that they must state what they are for, not just what they are against, real progress can be made.

The Democrats have put a number of detailed expansion plans on the table. If Republicans put a plan on the table, the two approaches can be debated. If Republicans refuse, it will become clear to everyone that they are in effect in favor of an automatic 20 percent across-the-board cut starting when Social Security’s accumulated surplus has been spent down around 2035. 

Once their obstruction is clear, they will be forced to emulate the Republicans of the 1950s, who realized the program’s popularity and worked with Democrats to protect, maintain, and even expand this vital institution. That will mean going along with enacting additional dedicated revenue, even if they continue to fight efforts to expand the program – if they want to win re-election. Perhaps, in time, Republicans will learn to appreciate our Social Security system. Whether they do or not, the stalemate will be over.

Nancy Altman is president of Social Security Works.

Tags benefit cuts debt ceiling Joe Biden Social Security

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video