Judd Gregg: A little, big idea for Biden

Judd Gregg: A little, big idea for Biden
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The Social Security system is going broke in 15 years or less.

This would be 11 years from the end of President-elect Biden’s first term.

People work decades contributing to Social Security for their retirement.


The coming collapse is therefore, in Social Security terms,  “just around the corner."

If we get to that date before Congress acts, the options will be rather limited. Congress can radically raise payroll taxes on the folks who are then working, it can cut benefits significantly, or it can just borrow until everyone falls over broke.

None of this is necessary.

The substantive problems of Social Security’s solvency are some of the most easily resolved of any major federal entitlement program.

It is just that politics keep getting in the way.

It seems rude to suggest that some of our leaders would put political gain ahead of making one of our most successful programs safe.

But they have, and that is why we are a facing a Social Security solvency crisis.

President-elect Biden has made two significant speeches since Election Day.

In both, he has stressed his desire not only to bring the country together, but to work in a bipartisan manner with Congress. The second effort is significantly more challenging than the first.

But if Biden is really interested in an early, bipartisan win, fixing Social Security is sitting there for the taking.

It is not a complex undertaking. Social Security has very few moving parts compared to something like repairing our healthcare system.

Let’s consider how this would work.

First, Biden would point out to the nation something most of us already know — without action now, bad things are going to happen in the not-too-distant future to those who rely on Social Security.

Second, Biden would need to say to those in his own party, who have for generations used Social Security as a political club of fear to bludgeon Republicans, that it is time to act rather than posture.

This will require courage on Biden’s part. His colleagues will not be inclined to release their vice-like grip on the club they have yielded so successfully.

But the time has come. Action is required. Leadership is needed. And the opportunity to give real definition to his presidency by restoring the security to Social Security should be extremely attractive to the new president.

It is one of the tests of leadership in our republic that to get big things done — things that really benefit a large swath of the American people — politicians need to compromise with their opponents.

This is often accomplished only by stepping on the toes of those who resist compromise.

This is what then-Speaker Tip O’Neill (D-Mass.) and President Reagan did almost 40 years ago — an earlier occasion when it was necessary to have adults step forward and rebalance Social Security so it could be viable in the decades to follow.

We are there again.

More than a few toes need to be stepped on, in both parties.

The good news is that there are really only four or five moving parts that need adjustments.

Most importantly, these adjustments will not harm the most vulnerable retirees in our society. They can actually be done in a way that gives better results to seniors in serious need.

While Biden needs to lead his party to accept change, Republicans will also have to compromise on the revenue needs of the system.


In addition, the program must be updated to fit the times — a point made by Charles Blahous of George Mason University, the country’s leading authority on Social Security.

The program currently has benefit structures that are outdated, no longer being applicable to today’s family and workforce composition.

Its formulas induce healthy workers to leave the workforce during some of their most productive years, undermining the nation’s competitive edge. These formulas also often benefit high-income earners at the expense of low-wage workers.

Over the last years, numerous serious, bipartisan groups have developed constructive and strong plans to fix Social Security.

The most recent effort was the proposal put forward by the Simpson-Bowles Commission, which was a highly workable and bipartisan plan.

The proposal involved benefit changes that dramatically enhanced the benefit structure of low-income individuals, especially women, who depend on Social Security.

At the same time, it used rational benefit changes such as a fair calculation of the Consumer Price Index and reduced benefits for higher-income individuals, coupled with some tax increases, that were also fairly applied.

Most elements of the proposal were drawn from the work of the late Alice Rivlin, a Democrat, a former head of the Congressional Budget Office and a force for fiscal responsibility. It would be a good starting point for another bipartisan effort.

Anyone who has spent any time working with Biden knows he is genuine when he says he wants to govern in a more inclusive style.

Taking on this very solvable issue would convert his words into action in a way that would indelibly define his presidency and give the nation hope that a new day had arrived.

If Biden led the way, fixed this simple but big problem and assured the long-term viability of Social Security, it would be an extraordinary way to start his presidency.

Judd Gregg (R) is a former governor and three-term senator from New Hampshire who served as chairman and ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, and as ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee.