Sanders Bill Goes Big for Social Security

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Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to Alliance for Retired Americans national convention on September 8, 2011. Photo courtesy of the office of Senator Sanders.

The Keeping Our Social Security Promises Act, S.1558, introduced by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), strengthens Social Security for future generations without cutting benefits. The bill “goes big” for the nation’s most important pension, life and disability insurance plan.

Before we get into the details of the Sanders bill, though, it is worth providing a little background on just what serious Washington people mean when they talk about “going big.”

A week ago, a group of more than 60 budget hawks of both parties sent a letter to the Super Committee asking its members to “go big” and propose a large-scale deficit-reduction package in excess of their $1.5 trillion goal.

There is no doubt that this letter, organized by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), a think tank funded by right-wing billionaire Peter G. Peterson, had Social Security in mind when they called for the Super Committee to “go big.” After all, no fewer than four of its signers voted for the Fiscal Commission deficit reduction proposal, which recommended cutting Social Security benefits by as much as 40 percent. Among them, Former Senator Alan K. Simpson (R-WY), whose apparent expertise in Social Security led him to call it a “Ponzi scheme” long before it was cool.

Social Security does not and cannot contribute to the deficit. It has a $2.7 trillion surplus and is prevented by law from borrowing.

But assuming we accept the letter signers’ premise that Social Security must be part of any deficit-reduction package with aspirations to “go big,” there is a perfectly sound bill in Congress that does just that.

Meet the Sanders bill: It’s simple, fair, and enormously popular. It has even attracted the support of Moderate Democrats like Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who is among the bills 9 original co-sponsors and who also signed the CRFB letter. Somehow I imagine it is not what the Alan Simpsons of the world had in mind, but they should give it a second look.

The Sanders bill (S.1558) closes Social Security’s 75-year funding gap by applying Social Security payroll tax contributions to covered earnings of $250,000 or more. Currently, only wages up to $106,800 are taxed.

S. 1558 will:

  • Guarantee Social Security can pay 100% of promised benefits for the next 75 years. Currently, with no action, Social Security will have sufficient income and assets to pay all monthly benefits in full and on time until 2036. S.1558 extends that through 2085, as estimated by the Social Security Administration.
  • Preserve currently scheduled benefits. Many proposals claiming to “strengthen” Social Security either undermine the program’s universal values, or the adequacy of its benefits. S.1558 closes Social Security’s funding gap without doing either.
  • Ensure everyone pays their fair share to Social Security. While nearly all Americans must make Social Security tax contributions on all of their wages, the wealthiest only do so on the first $106,800 of their annual earnings. S. 1558 rights this wrong. Social Security payroll tax contributions are only paid on wages up to $106,800 in 2011. S. 1558 gradually lifts the cap on taxable wages so that all workers contribute on all of their wages. It applies the Social Security payroll tax to covered earnings of $250,000 or more right away, but maintains the current-law benefit base. Importantly, it leaves the current cap temporarily in place, creating a donut hole so that a person’s earnings between $106,800 and $250,000 are not subject to a precipitous one-year increase in their payroll tax contributions. The donut hole would close over time, since the $106,800 cap rises with average wage increases. Once the cap reaches $250,000, in approximately 25 years, all wages would be subject to the Social Security payroll tax contribution. Benefits would continue to be calculated on the basis of capped wages, as they are under current law.
  • Affect a small number of Americans. Few Americans would be affected by this change to the Social Security payroll tax cap. Just 1.2% of workers had earnings over $250,000 in 2009, including 0.4% of women, 0.3% of African American workers and 0.3% of Latino workers.
  • Follow the will of the public.Two-thirds (66%) of voters support enacting Social Security payroll taxes contributions on wages above $106,800, according to a Lake Research poll. This includes 73% of Democrats, 66% of Independents, 59% of Republicans and 60% of Tea Party supporters. A Democracy Corps poll found that 63% of Americans favor eliminating the cap on wages subject to the Social Security payroll tax contributions.

Views expressed are those of the author, and do not reflect the opinions of Social Security Works or the Strengthen Social Security Campaign.

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