Commentary

One Wasted Year = $660 Billion

This article appeared in the New York Sun on November 21, 2005.

Here are two numbers to remember: $660 billion and 10 hours. Because of the failure to reform Social Security this year, the program’s future unfunded obligations have increased by $660 billion. That amounts to a debt of more than $2,200 for every man, woman, and child in the United States. This comes on top of a previous unfunded obligation of $12.8 trillion. Yet this week, Senate Democrats used a parliamentary maneuver to prevent the Senate from scheduling just 10 hours of debate early next year on Social Security reform.

Once upon a time, Social Security reform was a bipartisan issue. Democrats like former Senators Bob Kerrey and Daniel Patrick Moynihan were outspoken in warning about the program’s looming insolvency and calling for innovative approaches to fixing it. The Democratic Leadership Council and its think tank, the Progressive Policy Institute, explored solutions, including personal accounts. President Clinton led a national debate to “Save Social Security First.”

But ever since President Bush called for reforming the nation’s troubled retirement program, congressional Democrats have just one answer: no. No to personal accounts. No to changes in benefits. No to offering a plan of their own. No to any discussion or negotiation.

This wall of obstructionism, aided by millions of dollars in advertising by special interest groups, successfully stalled efforts at reform this year. The final attempt was an effort by Senators Jim DeMint, a Republican of South Carolina, and Rick Santorum, a Republican of Pennsylvania, to bring two relatively modest bills to the floor for debate. One of the bills, written by Mr. DeMint and cosponsored by Mr. Santorum, would rebate Social Security surpluses to workers to start personal accounts, preventing Congress from spending that money on other programs. The other bill, written by Mr. Santorum and cosponsored by Mr. DeMint, was a largely symbolic measure guaranteeing Americans over age 55 all the Social Security retirement benefits current law promises them, a provision intended to reassure seniors that any overhaul will not affect them. Neither proposal would have solved all Social Security’s problems or was as ambitious as reformers once hoped for. But they represented small, incremental steps in the right direction. At the very least, they were worth talking about.

Under Senate rules, Messrs. Santorum and DeMint needed unanimous consent to schedule 10 hours of debate on the bills next spring. Democratic Leader Harry Reid objected. There will be no debate. There will be no Social Security reform this year - even though the program now has another $660 billion in its unfunded obligations.

And while Democrats have been obstructionist, Republicans have hardly earned a badge of courage on the issue. Too many of them ducked and weaved and did almost anything to avoid tough choices. The House leadership in particular was as effective as Democrats in blocking debate. Who cares about the debt we leave to our children and our grandchildren, they seem to say, as long we make it through another election cycle without having to stand up to the AARP?

But Social Security’s problems are not going away. Within 12 years the program will begin running a deficit. The gap between its promises and what it can pay gets bigger with each passing year. The rate of return for younger workers continues to decline. Even more important, workers still have no ownership of their money. Doesn’t that deserve at least 10 hours of debate?

Sooner or later, Congress must face these issues. But thanks to Democratic obstructionism and Republican cowardice, it won’t be this year. $660 billion. 10 hours. Think about it.

Mr. Tanner is the director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute and director of Cato’s Project on Social Security Choice.