As a battle brews in Washington over the future of Social Security, retirees who just won a years-long fight for their pension benefits are looking to an even bigger challenge: Protecting the program that provides steady monthly income to roughly 65 million people.
Political tensions are growing over Social Security as Congress faces a 2023 vote to raise the federal government’s debt limit — must-pass legislation that does not authorize new spending but prevents the United States from defaulting on its existing financial obligations. Republican lawmakers in recent months have suggested that a vote on the debt ceiling could be used as leverage to push for Social Security changes. Reform ideas floated by various Republicans — and broadly opposed by Democrats — range from raising the Social Security eligibility age to categorizing the program’s funding as discretionary, meaning Congress would have to vote on it every year.
The issue weighs heavily on retirees like Kenneth Stribling of Milwaukee, who spent decades in the freight industry as a dockworker and is now president of the National United Committee to Protect Pensions, a grassroots organization that just won a nearly decade-long fight to protect the earned benefits of retirees in financially troubled multiemployer defined-benefit pension plans. After attending the group’s early November annual meeting in Kansas City — where members voted to broaden the organization’s mission to include protection of Social Security and Medicare — Stribling spent his 71st birthday in mid-November speaking at a retirement symposium in Washington, D.C., where Social Security issues loomed large.
In early December, Stribling introduced President Joe Biden at a White House event announcing a $36 billion bailout of the Central States, Southeast and Southwest Areas Pension Fund, one of the largest and most underfunded multiemployer pension plans. A few days later, he was back at his part-time job driving a courtesy shuttle for a Milwaukee car dealership — and contemplating Social Security’s future.
“Social Security is such an important part of retirement security,” Stribling told MarketWatch. Retirees are “very serious,” he said, about using their collective voice — and the lobbying know-how they’ve gained on dozens of trips to Washington — to protect Social Security.
More than 22 million people are lifted above the poverty line by Social Security benefits, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy group. But as the population ages, the program is headed for a funding shortfall. The Social Security trust fund that pays retirement benefits is on track to pay full scheduled benefits until 2034, according to the latest trustees’ report. Beyond that, the fund’s reserves will become depleted, but ongoing tax income will cover 77% of scheduled benefits, according to the report.
While many lawmakers of both parties have long agreed that something should be done about Social Security, momentum has been lacking, because any major changes to the popular program could trigger a voter rebellion. Action has been delayed amid sharp disagreements on proposed remedies that would be tantamount to cutting benefits — such as raising the eligibility age — or generating additional revenue for the program by taking measures like increasing the current cap on the amount of earnings subject to payroll taxes.
Why the Social Security battle will be intense in 2023
One thing that’s clear is that “year by year, it becomes much more difficult and expensive to fix” Social Security, Rep. John Larson, a Connecticut Democrat and chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee’s Social Security subcommittee, told MarketWatch. “This is one of the most critical programs in the country, and nobody holds Congress accountable for not voting on it,” he said.
Larson said that next year he plans to continue to push for his Social Security 2100 Act, which aims to strengthen the trust fund by applying the payroll tax — currently not collected on wages above $147,000 — to wages over $400,000, while also boosting benefits an average of 2%, among other measures.
The high-stakes debate on the debt limit promises to be particularly precarious in 2023, some Capitol Hill veterans say. With the Republican majority the next session of the House of Representatives amounting to just a handful of votes, the speaker will depend on the “most extreme elements in their party just to stay in power,” said Thomas Kahn, the House Budget Committee’s Democratic staff director from 1997 to 2016, who now teaches at American University. Reaching “a reasonable, negotiated settlement with the Republican conference is going to be exponentially more difficult” than it was in 2011, Kahn said, when a debt-ceiling standoff roiled financial markets and prompted a U.S. government credit-rating downgrade.
Some top Republican lawmakers’ recent comments linking Social Security issues with the debt-ceiling debate have amplified concerns among retiree advocates. Speaking about opportunities to reform Social Security at a Washington Post event early this month, the second-highest ranking Senate Republican, John Thune of South Dakota, said, “Can the debt limit present that opportunity? I think it can, but we’ll see.” Asked in October if he intended to push for Social Security reform as part of the debt-ceiling debate, House Republican leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California said he wouldn’t “predetermine” anything, according to Punchbowl News. Spokespeople for McCarthy and Thune did not respond to requests for comment.
The Republican Study Committee, a group of more than 150 House Republicans, suggested in a fiscal 2023 budget document that Social Security’s normal retirement age — the age when people are eligible for their full benefit — be gradually increased to reflect increases in longevity. Another idea floated by Wisconsin Republican Sen. Ron Johnson in an August episode of the Regular Joe Show podcast was to recategorize Social Security spending, currently considered a mandatory outlay by the federal government, as discretionary spending, to be approved by Congress each year. Given that programs like Social Security and Medicare are considered mandatory spending, “if you qualify for the entitlement, you just get it, no matter what the cost,” Johnson said on the podcast. Mandatory spending, he added, is “on automatic pilot. You don’t do proper oversight. You don’t get in there and fix the programs that are going bankrupt.” A spokesperson for Johnson did not respond to a request for comment.
Another plan that raised alarm among retirement-security advocates was put forward this year by Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott, who suggested that all federal legislation — which would include Social Security legislation — should sunset in five years. “If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again,” the report said. Asked about the potential impact on retirement security, a spokesperson for Scott shared an audio clip of Scott speaking in mid-December, saying, “I have no interest in cutting. I will not cut Medicare benefits or Social Security benefits.” Scott added: “Close to 70% of our budget we don’t even vote on anymore, which is wrong. We ought to make sure that these programs are preserved, and the way you make sure those programs are preserved is you go through them every year.”
‘A way of hiding the ball’ to make changes that are unpopular with voters
As reform ideas evolve, retiree advocates are concerned about maintaining transparency in the debate. A bill sponsored by Sen. Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, would create “rescue committees” for Social Security and other endangered trust funds that could recommend changes to improve solvency, which would then get expedited consideration in Congress. Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, a social-welfare organization, sees the plan as “just a way of hiding the ball” to make changes that are unpopular with voters, she said. Given the importance of the Social Security program, changes must be debated “in a transparent, open process,” she said. “Let everybody see what’s proposed.” A spokesperson for Romney did not respond to a request for comment.
The Social Security debate is heating up in Washington just as Stribling’s group, the National United Committee to Protect Pensions, is celebrating its improbable pension victory and considering its own future. “We want to keep this organization intact to help with the next big fight, and we know it’s going to be Social Security,” said Bernie Anderson, 70, a retired truck driver in Franklin, Wisc., and the pension group’s treasurer.
“It would be a shame to let this organization just evaporate,” said Jack Palush, a retired truck driver in North Royalton, Ohio, and advisory board member for the pension group. Given the group’s extensive contacts in Congress, he said, “we established a brand of our own in D.C.”
Along the way, the group’s active members learned to navigate Capitol Hill in ways big and small — including which lawmakers would let them use their offices to charge their phones or put their feet up during breaks in long days of lobbying, Stribling said.
The Alliance for Retired Americans, an advocacy group with more than 4 million members, wants the pension warriors on its side in the Social Security battle. “They’re going to be very valuable. They have a history of getting things done,” said Robert Roach Jr., president of the alliance. “They’re very influential, and they’re very active.” The two groups’ leaders plan to meet early next year to map out their strategy on Social Security and broader retirement-security issues.
Dana Vargo, the pension group’s communications director, had been planning to step back from her role at the organization at the end of this year — but the looming retirement-security issues have changed that. “We wanted to kind of walk away into the sunset” when the pension fight was over, she said, but “there’s work to still be done.” As with the pension issue, she said, “I know that we’re going to do whatever we have to do.”
As for Stribling, he said he had promised his late wife when he first got involved in the pension fight that he wouldn’t quit until a solution was found. Though he wants to “try retirement” at some point, he still feels the passion for the work. “I still have that burning in my belly,” he said. “If I’m needed, I’ll have to do it.”