The stars could be aligning — two key senators hope at least — when it comes to figuring out the finances for Social Security and Medicare.
Within the next 11 years, three of the government’s most important trust funds — Social Security, Medicare and the Highway Trust Fund — are projected to run low on the money needed to provide full benefits. Up first is Medicare, which could run low by 2026.
Senator Mitt Romney (R-UT) as well as Angus King (I-ME) say the issue needs to be addressed now, that waiting for the money to run out would be too late, and they are pushing a plan to establish “rescue commissions” to look into the programs.
“When COVID hit, everything sort of stopped because we all focused on COVID...and so the TRUST Act became a back-burner topic. but it’s back to a front burner again,” Romney said Wednesday, adding that there is now a bipartisan group of at least 12 senators behind the idea.
“People are working on this even though it’s not a top political issue," he added.
“I feel cautiously optimistic about this,” added King, an Independent who caucuses with Democrats, but quickly added he was “never betting on the timely outcome of the legislative process, but I think we are in pretty good shape on this.”
The remarks came at an event hosted by the budget watchdogs at the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. The group has helped push the issue for years, and Maya MacGuineas, the group’s president, opened things off Thursday by touting that there are now “a number of policymakers who are really starting to pay attention," and that inflation has made the issue even more pressing.
A U.S. Treasury report from last fall found that, with no action, the Social Security trust fund is currently projected to only pay out full benefits through 2033 after Medicare runs low in 2026. The recent Bipartisan Infrastructure Law helped out the Highway Trust Fund a bit but only extended its solvency through 2027.
The bill would establish commissions tasked with looking at each of the major funds. A host of moderate senators have been supportive of the idea, including Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV), Todd Young (R-IN), and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ).
If established, the commission would then have a heated internal debate about the balance between raising more revenue, perhaps from the payroll taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare, or cutting benefits for future recipients.
Sita Slavov of George Mason University was one of the panelists Thursday and noted that lawmakers on such commissions would be faced with a series of “politically unpopular choices.”
Then, if a commission could manage to strike a bipartisan deal, the resulting bill would still need to garner 60 votes in the Senate and a majority in the House, though would have a "privileged path" to limit possible amendments and more quickly receive an up or down vote.
Both Romney and King take pains to stress they just want to create the framework to make a plan. “I wasn’t proposing what the solution was, just that we ought to work to find a solution,” Romney says of first developing the bill after he was elected to the Senate.
A ‘plot to gut Social Security’
But opposition to idea runs deep among progressive Democrats on Capitol Hill.
The leader of a group called Social Security Works, aligned with Bernie Sanders, has memorably written that it’s a “plot to gut Social Security behind closed doors” adding that the Democrats in support are “outliers in their party.”
Many Democrats instead push plans that would increase both benefits and taxes. A prominent plan is known as “Social Security 2100” and would shore up Social Security by increasing the payroll taxes on wages above $400,000 and also gradually phasing in an increase in the payroll taxes for everyone.
Then–candidate Joe Biden repeatedly pledged during the 2020 presidential campaign that he would not cut Social Security benefits if he won the White House, while Sen. Sanders pushed his even more aggressive ideas to raise benefits and costs.
Romney revealed a bit of frustration Thursday at the opposition saying “a demagogue can always grab a microphone and say, ‘Oh, they are going to cut your benefits,’” but claimed again and again that any plan would need bipartisan buy-in and that the ideas supported by Sanders would raise taxes steeply and “That’s not where America is.”
Ben Werschkul is a writer and producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.