While the pledge was meant to show support for the popular entitlement program, it could actually lead to financial disaster.
Tens of millions of seniors and other recipients could see their benefits cut by at least 20% within a decade. The latest Congressional Budget Office projections find that Social Security’s retirement trust fund will be depleted by 2032.
“In a sense, doing nothing will not protect Social Security, but it will affect benefits that cannot be paid,” CBO Director Phillip Swagel said at a Bipartisan Policy Center event last month. “
Social Security has long been in a precarious financial position. As the U.S. population ages, fewer people commit to the program and support a burgeoning number of beneficiaries who are living longer. In total, nearly 66 million retired workers, their dependents and survivors, and disabled workers and their dependents receive monthly benefits.
However, entitlement programs are also one of the third rails of American politics, so elected officials are reluctant to propose any reforms that would lead to cuts in entitlements.
“It would be disingenuous to pretend that this is not a problem, that this is not the law in place,” said Gordon Gray, director of fiscal policy at the right-leaning American Action Forum. “It’s a choice — a choice that many policymakers are making. It’s a significant financial risk to the retirement benefits of tens of millions of Americans.”
Congress last made major reforms in 1983, just months before Social Security was able to pay full benefits. At the time, Democrats who controlled the House of Representatives agreed with Senate Republicans and Republican President Ronald Reagan on reforms including a payroll tax increase and a gradual increase in the normal retirement age from 65 to 67.
There are several ways to put Social Security on a stronger financial footing, though each has its opponents on Capitol Hill and in the White House. Lawmakers could raise the early retirement age, currently 62, or raise the normal retirement age again. They could raise the payroll tax rate, which now stands at 12.4 percent between employers and workers, or raise the cap on taxable income, currently $160,200. Congress could also change the formula for the annual cost-of-living adjustment so that it increases more slowly.
However, Gary Engelhardt, an economics professor at Syracuse University, said no action was likely to be taken anytime soon, in part because of the current lack of bipartisanship in Washington.
“It’s only going to be more expensive the longer you wait,” he said. “But Americans tend to wait to do things politically. So I don’t think anything will happen in the short term.”