George Pyle: Can we trust Mitt Romney and Ben McAdams to fix the funds?

(Erin Schaff | The New York Times) Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) in an elevator on Capitol Hill in Washington, Jan. 31, 2019. The junior senator and former governor of Massachusetts who ran twice for president has been a persistent critic of President Donald Trump's conduct, and therefore perhaps the highest-profile specimen of “human scum” — a designation that seems not to trouble him at all.

When your state’s congressional delegation includes one of the few Democrats who seemed even the least bit reluctant to impeach the Current Occupant, as well as one of the few Republicans who seems to be willing to at least listen to the idea, you may have the makings of some real bipartisan accomplishments.

Or maybe not.

Utah’s Sen. Mitt Romney got a little media attention last week for something that had nothing to do with impeachment, or with Twitter, when he rolled out a new bipartisan plan to rescue the Social Security, Medicare and Federal Highway Trust Funds.

Romney and West Virginia Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin were the public faces of what they are cleverly calling the TRUST Act. (“Time to Rescue United States’ Trusts.” Witty, no?) Utah Democrat Rep. Ben McAdams is a cosponsor of the bill in the House.

If passed, the new law would tell the Treasury to issue a detailed report on the status of those funds — all fed by their own dedicated taxes, not the income tax — and all expected to run dry within the next 13 years or so.

Congress would then leap into action the way Congress always leaps into action — by appointing committees. But those committees would be expected and empowered to come up with specific plans for rescuing each of those trust funds, and their plans would get an expedited run through each end of the Capitol.

The theory is that action — any action — is better than continued inaction. And there is justification for that.

The fear is that what might come out of those committees, especially for Social Security, will be a cudgel to whack the poor and the elderly, especially the poor elderly. And there is justification for that.

There have been many plans for balancing the Social Security books by cutting benefits, further delaying retirement ages or otherwise fulfilling the frat boy dreams of Paul Ryan, Romney’s 2012 running mate, of demolishing the social safety net, just for fun. The small part of the American system that qualifies us for First World status just annoys some people.

Way back in 2011, then-Rep. Jason Chaffetz was out flogging a plan to save Social Security with only changes on the benefit side, slow alterations that reduced the rate of benefit increases and cost of living adjustments, jiggered in a way that fell the hardest on the richest.

The Social Security Administration’s own bean counters ran the numbers and said, by golly, it’ll work. For 75 years, at least.

The flaw in his plan was that all the changes were reducing benefits, not increasing revenue. As Chaffetz said at the time, he’s a Republican, and Republicans don’t start their negotiations by calling for a tax hike.

But the young congressman’s Social Security plan, like a couple of other decent ideas he had, went nowhere. So he eventually went somewhere, off to a job where nobody is interested in decent ideas, so why bother. Understandable.

The baked-in flaw in the way we pay for Social Security is that the payroll tax that funds it is only taken from the first $132,900 of earnings. So the maximum tax anyone can pay into that trust fund is $8,240 a year, whether your income was $132,900 or $1,329,000 or $13,290,000.

That’s just wrong.

Lifting that cap, exposing all income to the 6.2% payroll tax (matched by your employer) would be by far the largest step we could take to make the fund solvent for a very long time to come. If we had done that 20 years ago, we probably wouldn’t even be having this conversation now.

Delaying retirement age any further than we already have should be out of the question. Though we throw around the number 65 as the age to hang it up, Congress way back in 1983 put an escalator in that so that full retirement age goes up a bit depending on the year you were born. If you were born in 1960 or later, full retirement age for you will be 67.

What’s really rotten about that, other than the fact that it delays my move to Scotland until January of 2023 — not that I’m counting or anything — is that people who have worked the hardest all their lives, at low-wage, heavy-labor jobs like mining or farming, are more likely to die before they have received all their earned benefits. While rich folks, even if they get Bernie Madoffed at age 70 and wind up needing Social Security benefits after all, will have the most time to enjoy it.

The pressures to balance the budget on the backs of the poor and elderly will be strong, with the Romney-McAdams bill or without it. You can trust in that.

George Pyle, reading The New York Times at The Rose Establishment.

George Pyle, editorial page editor of The Salt Lake Tribune, has done all the math he can handle for one week.


Twitter, @debatestate