There will be an elephant in the parlor of the U.S. House of Representatives tonight when President George W. Bush gives the State of the Union address. I’m not referring to the Grand Old Party symbol that is prominently placed at every political gathering. I’m talking about an issue that is too large to be ignored, but everyone pretends isn’t there.
The elephant is Social Security. You remember Social Security don’t you? She was the issue that everyone was talking about during the last election. Candidate Bush as well as the Republican and Democrat parties spoke with one voice. They all vowed not to touch her sacred trust fund, the excess money coming in for the nation’s retirement plan, over and above what is being paid out. We’re going to need this money because the time is coming (around the year 2015) when we will be bottom upwards, with more going out than is coming in.
The primary reason is the graying of our population. The Social Security administration projects that the number of people age 65 or older will rise by more than 90 percent in the next three decades. During the same period, the number of adults under age 65 – the ones paying the taxes to support their elders – will grow by only about 15 percent. Moreover, the number of elderly people is expected to keep rising at a faster rate than the number of non-elderly people as life spans continue to lengthen, leading to a crisis of behemoth proportions.
Presently, Social Security costs the government about $430 billion a year, roughly one-quarter of the entire federal budget. The federal government spends another $370 billion on the companion Medicare and Medicaid programs. Together they eat up nearly half of all federal spending, excluding interest payments on federal debt. According to the Congressional Budget Office, if these programs are not changed, by 2030 they could consume two-thirds of the federal budget.
If this elephant is mentioned at all, it will be only a wink and a nod. Whatever the rhetoric, here’s the translation: “Yes, we all know she is here in this room. We’ll pretend she is still important, but none of us are going anywhere near her.”
Last week the Congressional Budget Office projected that the recession and the war on terrorism and the tax cut would eat up about $4 trillion of the projected $5.6 trillion surplus projected over the next 10 years. Last week, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle tried to demagogue the issue by accusing the president of imperiling Social Security with his tax cut, the same way Enron executives ruined their employees’ retirement plans.
Here’s the problem with his logic. You still have a $1.6 trillion surplus. The problem is Daschle and his friends in Congress want more new money, over and above what we spent last year to dole out to their friends in our name. They act as if it is their right.
As soon as a surplus is projected, Congress figures out ways to gobble it up. The only way to stop the government from growing and growing and growing is to return the money to the people.
In 2000, presidential candidate Bush, Republicans and Democrats painted themselves into a corner when, in response to public pressure, they all promised not to keep raiding the Social Security piggy bank. Then the recession, which began at the end of President Clinton’s term, took its toll.
However, last spring, when Congress began marking up all the appropriation bills that make up the federal budget, members of both parties ignored what was happening with the economy and went right on spending. Not only that, they made big plans to authorize a lot of new spending. For example, the Agriculture Authorization bill contains $75 billion in new spending over the next 10 years, most of which will benefit the big agri-businesses. That’s a whopping 65 percent increase over the current baseline.
The 9-11 tragedy gave our congressmen and senators an excuse to break the Social Security piggy bank – and once the bank was split open, the raid began in earnest. President Bush must spend more than originally planned on defense issues. He must deal with a sagging economy and a Congress that seems intent on running up indefensible charges on the nation’s credit card. Meanwhile, the will to address the coming train wreck over Social Security has come and gone.