Social Security: 78 years (and counting)

Social_Security_45th_Anniversary

Seventy-eight years ago today, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act with this statement:

“Today a hope of many years’ standing is in large part fulfilled. The civilization of the past hundred years, with its startling industrial changes, has tended more and more to make life insecure. Young people have come to wonder what would be their lot when they came to old age. The man with a job has wondered how long the job would last.”

That was almost eight decades ago. Now, almost 90% of Americans age 65 or older receive Social Security. Almost half of those people would be living in poverty, if they did not receive Social Security benefits.

“This law, too, represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete. It is a structure intended to lessen the force of possible future depressions. It will act as a protection to future Administrations against the necessity of going deeply into debt to furnish relief to the needy. The law will flatten out the peaks and valleys of deflation and of inflation. It is, in short, a law that will take care of human needs and at the same time provide for the United States an economic structure of vastly greater soundness.”

Today, the Social Security Trust Fund has $2.7 trillion in assets. The “Old Age and Survivors Insurance” program is expected to have an annual surplus at least through 2020 (and only after 2020 would it need to dip into the Trust Fund to pay benefits).

The irony here is that President Roosevelt expected Social Security to “lessen the force of possible future depressions” and prevent the federal government from having to go “deeply into debt to furnish relief to the needy” during economic crises.

But instead, the program was used to help the federal government absorb the cost of the Bush tax cuts.

Today, we are at the decision-making point that Alan Greenspan predicted 10 years ago: either the Bush tax cuts need to (finally) end, or the government is going to have to “cover the $1 trillion price [of the tax cuts] by trimming future benefits in Social Security and other entitlement programs.”

Today, the Social Security program is under attack like never before. (Watch for my next post, about the GOP’s revived “Penny Plan”.)

And President Roosevelt’s assumption that the federal government would go “deeply into debt to furnish relief to the needy” during “possible future depressions”?

Looks to me like that’s just history.

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Really worth reading, if you have a few more minutes: Tax attorney Paula Singer’s column “Social Security is a model, not a failure, for Washington budgetmaking.”

If Congressman Ryan Could Save $161 Billion A Year, Would He? The Answer May Shock You

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DSC_9969Tax Credits or Spending? Labels, but in Congress, Fighting Words

The New York Times has a story about Washington lobbyists’ effectiveness in convincing Congress to pass tax breaks that benefit the wealthy.

Just one of those tax breaks – capital gains and dividends – costs an estimated $161 billion a year.  That would pay not just for the Sequester cuts, but also for all the additional cuts that House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan wants to make in next year’s federal budget.

No surprise, the top 1% get 75% of the benefit of that particular tax break.  (The bottom 60% of taxpayers get only 1% of the benefit.)

Another way to look at it?  The amount the 1% gets from the unearned income tax break – just in a single year – would pay for 10 years of Paul Ryan’s cuts to Medicare.

Read the story here.  Dig into the graphic here.

If you haven’t already, read Sunday’s post about corporate tax breaks.

Wondering why you should take the time to learn about this?  The next few budget battles are going to come down to questions of revenue versus cuts, and corporate welfare versus Social Security and Medicare.  Basically, it’s going to be a question of whose interests our government will serve:  the people who can afford to hire lobbyists? Or the very tired and distracted middle class?

The House GOP is still marching to the same drummer they have been following since 2001.  Nothing much is going to change in Washington, unless we the people work to change it.

The Magical Math of Boehner’s Congress: tax cuts don’t ‘cost’ anything

House Speaker John Boehner

House Speaker John Boehner
Another thing to remember, as you’re watching the Fiscal Cliff standoff:

When John Boehner was first elected Speaker of the House of Representatives, he changed the Rules.

Yes, the actual Rules that the House uses to structure debate on pending legislation.

One of those changes tells you a lot about Boehner’s priorities.

Boehner decreed that the House would not consider any additional federal spending without an identified “offset”.  For example, in order to increase spending on Medicaid, the House would have to “offset” that spending through cuts to other programs (for example, by cutting Food Stamps).

chart of factors contributing to federal debt

BUT – Boehner decided that tax cuts would be exempt from this. Under Boehner’s Rules, Congress could pass any tax cut proposal without having to “offset” – or even consider! – the revenue cost of the legislation.  [And yes, the Bush tax cuts are specifically mentioned, and specifically exempted from any Congressional consideration of their cost.]

In other words, under Boehner’s Rules, Congress will not add a dime to the deficit through increased spending.

But Congress can increase the deficit by any amount, as long as the money is being “spent” on tax cuts.

Yes, for more than a decade, our country has been borrowing to pay for the Bush tax cuts.  And under Boehner’s Rules, Congress can increase the deficit as much as it wants – as long as the borrowed money is paying for tax cuts, not spending.

Boehner’s “Magical Math” sheds a different light on the Fiscal Cliff “negotiations”, doesn’t it?

Using Retirement Funds to Balance the Budget

treasury


Up here in New Hampshire, we have some experience with politicians trying to use public workers’ retirement funds to balance the budget.

Back when Craig Benson was Governor, he wanted to use money from the public employee retirement system to balance the state budget.

But up here in New Hampshire, the public didn’t let him get away with that.  In 1984, Granite State voters amended our state Constitution to protect our employees’ retirement benefits.  New Hampshire Constitution Article 36-a [Use of Retirement Funds] provides:

“The employer contributions certified as payable to the New Hampshire retirement system … shall be appropriated each fiscal year … All of the assets and proceeds, and income there from, of the New Hampshire retirement system … shall be held, invested or disbursed as in trust for the exclusive purpose of providing for such benefits and shall not be encumbered for, or diverted to, any other purposes.”

Down in Washington DC, the federal government hasn’t been quite so careful.  Down in DC, public employee retirement funds are regularly used to balance the budget.

In fact, when the federal government hit the debt ceiling in May 2011, public employee retirement contributions were used to keep the federal government going for more than two months (until Congressional Republicans finally agreed to increase the debt limit).

At last report,

  • more than $800 billion of the federal debt was owed to the federal employees’ retirement system;
  • more than $600 billion of the federal debt was owed to military employees’ retirement programs;
  • more than $45 billion of the federal debt was owed to the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund.

State and local employees also own a significant chunk of the federal debt.  At last report, pension systems for state and local government employees held almost $190 billion in Treasury securities.

Adding it all up, the nation owes about $1.6 trillion to the various public employees’ retirement systems.  (That’s direct debt – not including unfunded liabilities.)

That’s only slightly more than what tax cuts for the wealthiest 5% have cost the Treasury since 2001.

Should we really be surprised that right-wing Republicans are trying so hard to “reform” public pensions?

The business lobbying group ALEC (“American Legislative Exchange Council”) has led the crusade.  “Taxpayers are no longer willing to bear the increasing cost of these plans… They are demanding reforms that will bring these plans into line with pension and OPEB benefits offered in the private sector.”  (What an interesting comparison!  Federal law generally prohibits private sector pension plans from loaning money to the company that sponsors the plan.)

As Chairman of the House Budget Committee, Rep. Paul Ryan followed ALEC’s lead – almost word-for-word.

Up here in the Granite State, we believe that government should fulfill the promises it has made to its employees.  We even amended our state constitution to ensure that public employees’ retirement funds would be used only to pay retirement benefits.

It’s time for the country to stop using public employee retirement funds to pay the cost of extending tax cuts for the wealthy.

It’s time for Congressional Republicans to stop trying to weasel out of their obligations to federal employees.

It’s time to keep the country’s promises.  (Now that’s a conservative value.)

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Wait!  That $45 billion borrowed from the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund deserves a closer look.

The Post Office is losing money.  Most of that deficit is being caused by Congressionally-mandated payments to the Postal Service Retiree Health Benefits Fund.   That mandate dates back to the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006.

Guess what else happened in 2006?  Just months before Congress decided to have the Postal Service pre-fund retiree benefits (and loan that money to the US Treasury), the country had hit the debt ceiling, and had borrowed from the federal employees’ retirement system to pay the bills.

(No, by the time 2006 rolled around, the Bush tax cuts hadn’t “jump started” the economy or started to erase the federal debt.  So Congress used federal employees’ retirement contributions as a Rainy Day Fund.)

Kind of convenient, isn’t it?  The country needs to borrow money, and suddenly there’s a new Fund to borrow from.

Only now, that Fund is drowning the Postal Service in debt.