Politics & Policy

Are Democrats Going to Try to Buy Votes with Ridiculous Promises to Expand Social Security?

There’s a growing trend among Democrats that involves not only refusing to reform Social Security or denying that it’s bankrupt, but actually demanding that the program’s benefits be increased. The Wall Street Journal reports:

For years, liberal Democrats have fought against proposals to cut Social Security benefits. Now, they’re pushing the party not just to defend benefits but to increase them, and that could present a problem for Hillary Clinton.

The call for higher benefits is a marked difference from recent years in which the White House and Republicans were negotiating deficit-cutting deals, leaving liberals to argue merely for staving off benefit cutbacks. Separately, many experts in both parties have long argued that extending the solvency of the program would require a combination of benefit cuts and tax increases.

The liberals’ argument is that Social Security benefits are meager and that people in retirement need more, not less, money. Some also contend that concerns about the program’s solvency are exaggerated. And inside the Democratic Party, that argument is gaining traction. Legislation increasing benefits, and boosting payroll taxes to cover the cost, now has 58 co-sponsors in the House.

This is a stunning position to take, considering that Social Security is already running a permanent cash-flow deficit and that, without reform, the retirement-benefits trust fund will be empty by 2034, requiring large cuts to benefits. These cuts, required by law, would actually happen a bit sooner if Democrats get their preferred solution to the impending emptying of the Social Security disability trust fund: shifting payroll tax funds from the retirement fund to the disability fund. And this is all assuming there aren’t any financial crises or major recessions between now and then. Making the retirement program more generous, without big attendant increases to its funding source (the payroll tax), would hasten its bankruptcy substantially.

But who cares about fiscal reality? Democrats are planning to take this unserious plan to the campaign trail, the Journal reports:

“The best defense is a good offense,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which helps lead the effort.

Now, liberals are pushing the message into the 2016 campaign cycle. Mr. Green’s group is collecting signatures in the early-voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire on a letter asking that Democratic presidential candidates get behind “big, bold ideas,” such as expanding benefits. And he said it would be a “great litmus test” for any Democrat on the ballot.

The movement appears to be having an impact in at least one Senate race. In recent weeks, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat who is running for an open seat in Maryland, signed onto the House bill expanding benefits. In the past, he had spoken favorably about a deficit-reduction plan that included trims to Social Security.

Mr. Van Hollen’s Democratic primary opponent, Rep. Donna Edwards, also favors increased benefits and is making the issue a centerpiece of her campaign.

Thankfully, there are a few center-lefties trying to talk some sense into these guys:

In an opinion essay in The Wall Street Journal in 2013, analysts from the centrist Democratic think tank Third Way called plans to increase benefits “reckless” and “irresponsible,” prompting liberal activists to protest outside their Washington office building.

Third Way’s Jim Kessler, one of the authors, said in an interview that it is a bad idea both to boost benefits for the wealthy and to raise taxes on low-income workers, as the House Democratic plan does.

Back in 2013, Third Way’s Jon Cowan and Jim Kessler had an interesting piece about the Left’s four fantasies about Medicare, Social Security, and deficits. It’s worth reading again.

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