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POLICY INSIGHT
BEYOND THE NUMBERS

Ways and Means Mum on Revenue Increases for Social Security in Bowles-Simpson, Domenici-Rivlin

The House Ways and Means Committee has invited members of the public to comment on the Bowles-Simpson and Domenici-Rivlin plans to restore solvency to Social Security. But there’s a glaring omission:  from reading the committee’s description of the two plans — and its draft bills — you’d never know that both Bowles-Simpson and Domenici-Rivlin urged significant increases in Social Security taxes. Ways and Means focuses solely on the benefit reductions in the two packages.  Those savings would come from a proposal to use the chained CPI for computing cost-of-living adjustments; from scaling back benefits, especially for medium and higher earners; and from adjusting Social Security benefits for rising life expectancy (either by hiking the retirement age, as in Bowles-Simpson, or by further paring the benefit formula, as in Domenici-Rivlin).  Ways and Means also notes that both plans propose to improve benefits for certain long-term, low-paid workers. But revenue increases made an important contribution to long-run solvency in both Bowles-Simpson and Domenici-Rivlin.  (See graph.)  Because the benefit cuts would be phased in gradually, the 75th year paints a truer picture of the long-run policy mix than does the average over 75 years.  We didn’t think revenue increases contributed enough in Bowles-Simpson — they made up only one-third of its savings over 75 years and just one-fifth in the 75th year — but they weren’t absent.
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Social Security is a popular program, and poll respondents of all ages and incomes express a willingness to support it through higher taxes. We think a balanced solvency package must include revenue increases, not just benefit cuts.  (The program’s benefits are already extremely modest, both in dollar terms — the average retired worker or widow receives less than $1,300 a month — and by international standards.)  And a well-crafted package would also make targeted improvements to the Supplemental Security Income program — which is distinct from Social Security but has important overlaps — and would replenish the Disability Insurance trust fund. Neither Bowles-Simpson nor Domenici-Rivlin quite measures up by those criteria, and we urge policymakers to do better.  But failing to tell the public that both plans included significant revenue increases is disingenuous.