Both Biden and Trump have their heads in the sand on Social Security. There’s a fix | Opinion



George W. Bush had a solution — but he touched the third rail, and the idea was toast. But we can do it, and work on our national debt crisis, too. Bigstock


President Joe Biden says he will protect Social Security. Donald Trump says he will protect Social Security. Their definition of protection is to do nothing by ignoring its troubled future.

The Congressional Budget Office just published its February forecast for Social Security. CBO is projecting that in nine short years, the trust fund will disappear and benefits will have to be cut by 23%. During the 10-year forecast period, benefits are projected to increase from $1.3 trillion to almost $2.5 trillion in 2034, if money were available. The shortfall will be over half a trillion dollars a year and growing.

How can Biden and Trump say they are protecting Social Security? If one of them is elected, they will be out of office well before the drastic cuts. The Senate has not even cared to confirm the required two public trustees of Social Security in nine years, meaning the office’s Annual Report has no public input.

Social Security is by far the largest and most important government program for many Americans. In 2022, it paid benefits to 66 million retires, survivors, children and disabled Americans. Some 184 million paid Social Security payroll taxes expecting to protect their American dream of a secure retirement.

Perhaps there is a will to save Americans’ retirement future. A step in the right direction was Sens. Joe Manchin and Mitt Romney proposing a bipartisan, bicameral fiscal commission to stabilize the $34 trillion in U.S. debt. Last month, the House Budget Committee, led by Chairman Jodey Arrington, voted to create a fiscal commission to focus on the massive federal deficit and its biggest future components: Social Security and other entitlement programs. Surprisingly, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee said a commission was unnecessary because Congress could do it without a commission.

Since the last Social Security reforms in 1983, based on the Greenspan Commission, nothing has been done. President Bill Clinton tried. President George W. Bush ran on Social Security reform in 2004, making an all-out effort. As the Social Security Principal Deputy Commissioner, I did more than 100 events. Congress, supported by the AARP, refused to engage. As Bush wrote in his memoir “Decision Points,” we touched the third rail, and we were toast. If Bush’s reforms, including voluntary personal accounts, had been enacted, we would not have a problem today. It is too late for personal accounts or any form of investment, as the trust funds are eroding quickly.

A good blueprint for Social Security reform is the Bipartisan Policy Center think tank’s Report of the Commission on Retirement Security and Personal Savings. The 16-member commission which former Sen. Kent Conrad and I co-chaired, was composed equally of Democrats and Republicans. It had many retirement experts including the two last public trustees of Social Security, former politicians, a union representative and a retired CEO of a major insurance company. Our comprehensive proposals fixed Social Security for all time while better protecting current retirees. It will be tougher now, but it still can be done.

The key was to target a 50/50 split between revenues and benefits. The growth in benefits was slowed down by making those benefits more progressive, slowly increasing the retirement age, and using a better inflation measure. Importantly, benefits were increased for lower income retirees, widows, widowers and college students with deceased parents . On the revenue side, we recommended slowly increasing the taxable maximum benefit and the payroll tax by 1% (half from the employee and half from the employer) over a 10-year period.

The point is that a balanced set of gradual changes can ensure the future of Social Security, protect Americans’ retirement and reduce the massive projected debt levels of the United States. Fitch Ratings has downgraded our debt from AAA and Moody’s Investors Service has it on negative watch.

The CBO’s recent report projects the gross federal debt will grow by $21.4 trillion to $54.4 trillion in just 10 years. To put Social Security by itself in perspective, without reforms, we would need $22 trillion today to pay promised benefits over the next 75-year period. Social Security is an excellent place to start tackling our debt crisis.


James Lockhart is a senior fellow at the Bipartisan Policy Center. He served as principal deputy commissioner of Social Security and was later nominated to be a public trustee of Social Security and Medicare. He is the author of “America: Underwater and Sinking, Time to Surface.”


Biden, Trump wrong on Social Security. There’s a solution | Kansas City Star