The political tsunami of the week is the news that President Obama is offering Republicans changes to Social Security and Medicare in exchange for an agreement to raise new tax revenue and raise the nation’s debt ceiling. While the White House has said it wants “to work with both parties to do so in a balanced way that preserves the promise of [Social Security] and doesn’t slash benefits,” some Democrats are questioning why the program is part of the debt ceiling negotiations at all.
In an interview today on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) defended Social Security against those on both sides of the aisle who say deep cuts to the program will reduce the deficit. While acknowledging that responsible reforms can be made to entitlement programs to save money, Ellison refocused the debate on the central problem that seniors and the poor are being asked to sacrifice greatly while the richest Americans are being protected by congressional Republicans:
ELLISON: Social Security actually is not contributing to the deficit. Social Security loans us money. So at the end of the day, all this discussion about how we’re going to cut Social Security is very distressing to me because Social Security isn’t the problem…This is inequitable and regressive…We’re asking the poorest Americans to sacrifice. When are the wealthiest Americans going to step up and do the patriotic thing, which is to contribute to deal with this budget deficit.
White House Budget Director Jacob Lew wrote recently that “Social Security benefits are entirely self-financing. They are paid for with payroll taxes collected from workers and their employers throughout their careers.” Prominent economists like Paul Krugman have debunked the notion that there’s a “Social Security crisis” that demands deep cuts.
Democrats including Sens. Harry Reid (D-NV) and Chuck Schumer (D-NY) have noted that Social Security “does not add one penny to the deficit.” The Social Security Trust Fund currently holds approximately $2.6 trillion and can pay full benefits through 2037 and close to full benefits for decades after. Very minor tweaks to the system would strengthen Social Security for future generations and bolster the program in important ways.
Nevertheless, conservatives have tried to make entitlement programs a scapegoat for the nation’s deficit, despite the fact that two of the biggest causes of our current deficit are the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and two wars that were never paid for. A recent Pew poll found that 60 percent of Americans believe it is more important to keep Social Security and Medicare benefits intact than to reduce the deficit.