House leaders get frank about Social Security cost
By Patrice Hill
8:58 p.m., Tuesday, July 13, 2010
In a rare departure from this year's intense political posturing over the soaring budget deficit, House leaders of both parties recently signaled that they are prepared to tackle a leading long-term liability — Social Security — by raising the retirement age.
Politicians often talk in generalities about cutting the deficit, but discussing specifics about how Congress may curb the growth of the biggest and most popular programs such as Social Security and defense is controversial and usually taboo in an election year.
But lessons learned from the debt crisis in Europe and worries that the U.S. could soon confront its own debt crisis, with annual deficits projected at about $1 trillion for years to come, may have prompted the unusually frank comments by House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat, and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican.
Speaking in unrelated forums, both leaders stressed that with people living longer and enjoying better health in their senior years, the nation simply can't afford any longer to be paying out benefits for as long as 30 years after retirement.
"We need to look at the American people and explain to them that we're broke," Mr. Boehner said in an interview last week with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Besides raising the retirement age for full Social Security benefits to 70 for people now 50 or younger, Mr. Boehner suggested curbing benefit growth by tying cost-of-living increases to the consumer price index rather than growth in wages, and providing benefits only to those who need them.
"If you have substantial non-Social Security income while you're retired, why are we paying you at a time when we're broke?" he said. "We just need to be honest with people."
Mr. Hoyer also said it was time to be honest with the public that the sheer size of the deficits and public debt means any serious effort to cut them back to manageable levels will require cuts and reforms in all major programs — including defense and Social Security — as well as tax increases.
"We could and should consider a higher retirement age, or one pegged to life span," he said in a speech last month before the Third Way think tank. Like Mr. Boehner, he suggested making Social Security and Medicare more "progressive," that is, providing benefits primarily to low-income people who need them the most.
Mr. Hoyer also endorsed specific cuts in defense weapons systems sought by the White House, and said the House Armed Services Committee is considering whether to adopt them.