An insidious piece of legislation affecting Social Security and Medicare may be working its way into the COVID-19 relief bill. We had hoped that Sen. Mitt Romney’s (R-Utah) TRUST Act was moribund after it went nowhere in the last Congress. But it has come back to life as an amendment to the FY 2021 budget resolution that the Senate passed in February. Now, Romney may offer the TRUST Act as an amendment to the COVID relief bill — a dangerous idea that has no place in legislation intended to ease, not exacerbate, Americans’ financial pain.
Seniors’ advocates were rightly alarmed in 2019 when Romney first introduced this legislation, which would establish congressional “rescue committees” to consider cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The committees’ recommendations would then be fast-tracked for approval in the House and Senate. This is nothing more than a back-door mechanism for enacting cuts to seniors’ earned benefits that wouldn’t otherwise be possible through the normal legislative process.
Though the TRUST Act would impact the Medicare Part A (Hospital Insurance) trust fund, it would affect the entire Social Security program, including retirement and disability benefits. Social Security is completely self-funded and separate from other federal spending. It does not contribute even a penny of red ink. In fact, ‘tax expenditures’ (revenue the federal government forgoes through tax breaks) are the No. 1 driver of deficits. The most recent and egregious example was the $2 trillion GOP tax giveaway to the wealthy and big corporations in 2017.
It is true that Social Security faces future financial challenges. The trust fund will become depleted in 2035 unless Congress takes action. But there are reasonable revenue-side solutions that do not ask tomorrow’s seniors to endure benefit cuts when all indications are that they will need their earned benefits even more than previous generations did. President Biden and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) have proposals for strengthening Social Security’s finances while actually boosting benefits for those most in need.
Meanwhile, there is no need to cut a program that has been a financial lifeline for retirees for 85 years. One of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s inspirations for establishing Social Security in 1935 was seeing American seniors literally living in poor houses. Today, the average Social Security beneficiary receives a modest $1,543 per month — or about $18,500 a year. Without Social Security, 38 percent of seniors in the wealthiest country in the world would fall into poverty. Nearly half of all beneficiaries rely on Social Security for all or most of their income.
Despite Social Security’s role in providing seniors with baseline financial security, the TRUST Act does not require its “rescue committees” to consider the adequacy of current benefits — or the human impact of potential cuts. Retirees would be relegated to the status of figures on a balance sheet. This is not an acceptable outcome for our parents, grandparents, and friends who depend on their monthly Social Security checks.
As an amendment to the COVID relief bill, the TRUST Act would be a Trojan Horse to circumvent legislative norms for changing Social Security. The Congressional Budget Act and the Byrd Rule specifically prohibit any modifications to Social Security through budget reconciliation — the vehicle Democrats are using for COVID legislation. But the TRUST Act could sneak its way into law on the coattails of COVID relief.
Why this back-door approach to cut Americans’ earned benefits? Romney and other ‘fiscal hawks’ (the same ones who voted for the deficit-swelling Trump/GOP tax cuts) can see that Social Security and Medicare are politically popular. Polling consistently indicates overwhelming support for these programs (and opposition to benefit cuts) across party lines. In fact, recent surveys suggest that the public supports expanding Social Security and asking the wealthy to pay their fair share by adjusting the payroll wage cap. Both of these provisions are in President Biden’s plan and in Larson’s Social Security 2100 Act. Romney and his fellow ‘entitlement reformers’ would obviously prefer that any cuts to earned benefits be executed under the cover of ‘rescue committees’ and rushed to a floor vote.
Unfortunately, a number of Senate Democrats voted for the TRUST Act in February as part of this year’s budget resolution. We urge them to reconsider their position — and to oppose the TRUST Act as part of COVID relief legislation. Democrats must reject Republican attempts to undermine our nation’s most successful social insurance programs — crucial legacies of the New Deal and Great Society. Today’s workers and tomorrow’s retirees expect nothing less.
Tom Harkin is a former U.S. senator from Iowa, founder of the Harkin Institute at Drake University, and Chair of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare advisory board. Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare