Saving Social Security should be a priority in Congress

Last month, U.S. Sen. J.D. Vance, R-OH, told former White House aide Steve Bannon that some lawmakers want to reduce Social Security benefits so that the federal government can send more money to Ukraine, which Vance argued would flow through to Ukrainian President Zelensky’s underlings to “buy a bigger yacht.”

While Vance’s statement may come across as an amusing sound bite, the ultimate butt of his joke are millions of American seniors and the others who rely on Social Security. The fact is that Social Security faces significant financial challenges over the next few years. Our elected officials in Washington D.C. should be trying to solve this looming problem, rather than cracking jokes about it.

This is where seniors should be paying attention. Since 1983, the Social Security system has generated more than $20 trillion in promises that it likely will not be able to fulfill. Incredibly, approximately two-thirds of that sum stems from congressional inaction.

Part of the problem has been politicians leveraging the program to advance an agenda completely unrelated to Social Security. Vance’s current agenda may be justified, but not at the expense of Social Security. At this point, someone turning 80 years old today expects to outlive the program’s ability to pay scheduled benefits.

Fixing Social Security should be near the top of the priority list in Washington D.C. – not a prop for partisan politics.

Vance’s statement betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the program’s design, over which anyone in or approaching retirement should fight tooth and nail. Under current law, reductions to benefits going to seniors can’t be used to pay for other priorities in the government. Social Security is not, and should never be allowed to devolve into, a profit loss center for the rest of the government.

This design was intentional. Back in 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt designed the program’s financing to protect citizens from politicians who want to spend that money elsewhere. The president said that the system was set up so that “no damn politician” would ever scrap his program.

At this point, any benefit reduction represents savings to the program, which stays in the Trust Fund for future retirees. The only trade-off in benefits reductions today is whether those of us 79 years old and younger will receive a full check or a partial one in the future. Every lawmaker should understand that fundamental fact.

Sen. Vance’s joke presents a larger problem. While it is essentially clear that few Americans want to sacrifice their benefits in order to buy foreign ministers a bigger yacht, the obvious question becomes exactly what public expense in the mind of Vance would justify a reduction of payments going to our grandparents? Maybe it is a border wall, or increased spending on the war on drugs.

When you retire, you have to plan for managing your life without outside income over a long period of time. You need stable income for decades. The newly eligible senior in Ohio will retire at age 67, and expects to collect benefits for another 19 years or so. The last thing that these people need is the annual uncertainty of what political priority might come in front of them.

If you give a politician a dollar, he or she will spend it. The last thing on earth that seniors want is D.C. politicians believing that they can spend the money held by Social Security on other things – because, if given the chance, they surely will.