On Social Security, Put All Ideas On the Table

Ever since President Bush put Social Security atop the national agenda, the issue has received a great deal of attention. Unfortunately, much of this debate has involved one side or the other trying to score partisan points, instead of seriously discussing the system’s challenges.

It is time to restore some common sense. First, we need to refocus on the target. The focus on 2042, the date the trust fund becomes insolvent, distracts attention from problems that will begin much earlier.

In 2008, the first baby boomers will begin to claim benefits, and soon after, the Social Security surplus will begin to decline. By 2018, tax revenues dedicated to Social Security will no longer be enough to cover benefit costs. At this point, Social Security will begin to redeem the Treasury bills held by the trust fund, giving Social Security first call on government revenues.

By 2025, the Social Security system will be running annual cash shortfalls of $100 billion per year in today’s dollars — a $200 billion swing from the cash surpluses the system is currently running. This dramatic swing will create tremendous challenges for the federal budget.

If we do not address these budgetary pressures, future Congresses will find their hands tied in meeting other challenges. To meet the needs of senior citizens in the future, other important programs would have to be cut, taxes would have to be raised or massive amounts of debt would have to be issued. Either we can make tough choices today or we can leave behind a fiscal time bomb.

The discussion should begin with a simple question: Does Social Security face a problem?

Legislators whose answer to that question is “no” should co-sponsor a bipartisan bill to do nothing in the 109th Congress and go on to other issues.

However, anyone who agrees with the Social Security trustees and the Government Accountability Office, who have warned that Social Security faces problems, should step back, take a deep breath, and begin a constructive dialogue about what should be done to preserve Social Security for our grandchildren.

The first step should be to have an open and honest national discussion. Public understanding of the nature of the problem and the options for reform are essential to reaching agreement on an issue as important as the future of Social Security. Partisan attempts to sway voters should be set aside, and a genuine attempt to engage the public should be undertaken.

Next, policymakers must put all ideas on the table. Everyone must resist the temptation to immediately shoot down ideas they don’t like. Let an idea fly in the public debate long enough to consider its merits. Give the committees of jurisdiction in the House and Senate a chance to hold hearings about options for change.

It is important that all participants in this debate avoid using rhetoric that restricts our flexibility in finding workable solutions. Similarly, policymakers, the press and the public should avoid singling out individual reform items for criticism without considering them in the context of a comprehensive plan.

We respect those who honestly oppose individual accounts as part of Social Security. But opposing personal accounts is not a substitute for offering a positive solution for dealing with the challenges that face Social Security regardless of whether we enact individual accounts. At the same time, simply expressing support for individual accounts while ruling out any tough choices on benefits or taxes is equally irresponsible.

We believe America must honor its promise to those who have played by the rules and earned the right to a secure retirement that cannot be taken away. We also believe that if Social Security were being created from scratch today, Americans would want to include a way to help everyone build up a nest egg.

Finding a bipartisan solution that addresses Social Security’s challenges honestly and responsibly will be difficult. But it is possible to keep promises made to today’s seniors while granting future generations access to the same financial security today’s retirees enjoy. Americans expect no less.

Former Reps. Tim Penny (D-Minn.) and Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas) are leaders of Four Our Grandchildren, which educates people about Social Security.