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Opinion: Why Congress won’t confront a looming Social Security, Medicare crisis

Social Security trustees reported this week that the program’s main trust fund will be depleted one year earlier than originally thought, and Medicare’s main fund will run out in 2026

Trays of Social Security checks wait to be mailed from the U.S. Treasury.
Trays of printed Social Security checks wait to be mailed from the U.S. Treasury’s Financial Management services facility in Philadelphia on Feb. 11, 2005. The financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic on Social Security and Medicare was front and center as the government released its annual report on the state of the bedrock retirement programs this week.
Bradley C. Bower, Associated Press

Three years ago, when Social Security trust fund administrators said the fund responsible for retiree and survivor benefits would be depleted in 2034, I labeled most politicians in Washington fiscal alcoholics.

They didn’t know for sure which bottle, or, rather, which expenditure, would hurl them over the edge toward rock bottom, but they were having too much fun to stop.

Well, the political party in charge of the tab has changed since then, but the spending party continues, and now the fund is projected to run dry in 2033. This week, in their annual report, trustees said the acceleration was mainly because of COVID-19. The pandemic slowed the economy enough that workers didn’t contribute as much in taxes as had been predicted.

You may not have heard about this, what with a hurricane and the messy end to the war in Afghanistan dominating the news.

But, truth be told, you wouldn’t have heard a lot about it without those things, either. Twelve years is a long time when you’re a politician — two terms in the Senate, three in the White House and six in the House of Representatives. Why worry today about something that will happen tomorrow?

Oh, and in the meantime, a lot of elected leaders are pushing budget and infrastructure packages that would add $5 trillion more in expenditures.

Bartender!

Even average people don’t seem concerned. If they did, they would be demanding action, the way the tea party once did.

Instead, we sit on the calm waters of the Niagara River, without a worry about the distant sound of rushing water.

I’ve read pundits who say it’s all overblown. Social Security isn’t going bankrupt. It’s just the trust fund that’s running out of money. If nothing happens by 2033, the government will still collect enough money from workers to pay 76% of scheduled benefits.

But ask yourself this: How would Democrats react today to any proposal that would cut 24% of the benefits promised by Social Security? How would Republicans react to plans to raise taxes to cover the difference?

For an answer, just look at the initial fallout last year when Utah’s Sen. Mitt Romney sponsored the Trust Act. This reasonable bill would establish separate committees to study Social Security, Medicare and the federal highway trust funds, with the charge to find ways to keep them solvent. The committees would consist of equal numbers from each party.

Some Democrats immediately called it a way to “fast-track the destruction of these programs.” End of discussion. They offered no solutions of their own.

Years ago, President George W. Bush ran into similar opposition to his goal of overhauling entitlement programs. As The Wall Street Journal editorial board said this week, the result is that “Most in the political class won’t even mention the problem.”

And so we are left to wander aimlessly on a road that leads to having benefit cuts or tax hikes thrust upon us like a thunderstorm at a picnic.

A third, more popular, option would be to simply print the money to cover the difference. As we have seen lately, fiscal alcoholics love printing presses. But that option likely would not end well.

By the way, the trust fund for Medicare Part A, which covers hospital care for the elderly, is on track to deplete its reserves in 2026, which is within the next presidential term. If that happens, the program would be able to pay only 91% of benefits. Considering many doctors already refuse to take Medicare patients because payments often don’t cover costs, this would not be good.

While politicians engage in political trench warfare over voter rights, abortion, the Afghanistan withdrawal and an endless list of other issues, aging Americans are left to wonder whether their golden years will be filled with reduced Social Security checks, rationed health care or runaway inflation.

Or they ought to be, anyway, if they are paying attention.

When I wrote that column three years ago, I lamented a national debt of $21 trillion. Today, it is rapidly approaching $29 trillion. The raucous party continues.

It’s still not too late to fix these problems before they become crises. The retirement age could be raised for today’s younger generation, Social Security benefits could be reduced for wealthier Americans or minimal tax hikes could rebuild reserves over time. Or maybe someone has a better idea.

The White House issued a statement this week saying “The Biden-Harris administration is committed to safeguarding these programs …”

Really? How? And when do politicians start a serious discussion about real ideas?

Jay Evensen is the Deseret News’ senior editorial columnist.