What should we do about Social Security? Unfortunately, the issue is becoming contentious among my fellow Republicans in destructive ways.
Social Security is our country’s fundamental safety net for Americans facing old age and disability. The program was hotly contested at the time it was passed, but has long come to be accepted by both Democrats and Republicans alike as a vitally important form of financial protection for millions of Americans. “I believe in the Social Security system,” said Ronald Reagan in 1981 as he worked to shore up “for all time” what he called “our nation's ironclad commitment to Social Security.”
The Social Security program faces significant problems, including, first of all, how to pay for it in future years. As the generation of baby boomers retires, the Social Security Trust Fund will run out of cash by 2040 unless the program is adjusted. This is a serious worry that deserves a serious response. We need to reform and strengthen the program so that our children and grandchildren can count on it.
Governor Rick Perry of Texas, now seeking the Republican presidential nomination, has a very different idea. He agrees with me that Social Security’s financing is in trouble, but from that point forward we sharply diverge. Instead of repairing the program as I aim to do, he wants to dismantle it.
In his 2010 book, "Fed Up," Perry calls Social Security “a crumbling monument to the failure of the New Deal.” It is a program, he writes, that “we have been forced to accept for more than 70 years” and was enacted “at the expense of respect for the Constitution.” An absolute failure based upon “fiscal insanity,” the program, he says flatly, should be dismantled and turned over to the states.
But this proposal raises many more questions than it answers. For example: Does Governor Perry believe Social Security is unconstitutional, or is he advocating its elimination because he believes fifty separate programs would be better public policy?
Given that the Social Security system has future unfunded liabilities, how would these liabilities be managed by the states?
Would the Social Security Trust Fund, the interest it generates, and the tax revenues from existing benefits that flow into it be divided between the states?
How would Governor Perry’s plan treat the millions of Americans who move from state to state, what kinds of records would be kept for them, and by whom?
Would some states be allowed to forego a pension or disability program altogether?
Who would pay the added costs associated with administering this proliferation of state-level systems?
These and numerous other questions about Governor Perry’s proposal cry out for answers. Thus far, we have none.
In my recently released plan for jobs and economic growth, I present various measures to reform and strengthen Social Security, including raising the eligibility age and changing the way benefits are calculated for high-income retirees. At no point should tax increases be on the table. And none of these changes should affect current retirees. These policy options together will enable Social Security to remain financially sound beyond the next 75 years.
That is a significant improvement over the status quo. It is an even more significant improvement over Governor Perry’s ill-thought out plan to dismantle Social Security and turn its core functions over to the states with consequences for seniors and for state finances that are certain to be dire.
It would be a moral wrong to renege on the “iron-clad commitment” we have made as a society to our nation’s elderly and vulnerable. The American people are looking to keep Social Security alive and well, and I believe the Republican Party should be committed to doing just that.
If I am fortunate enough to be my party’s nominee, I will advocate for solutions that keep Social Security strong for seniors now and in the future.
Mitt Romney is a former governor of Massachusetts and a Republican presidential candidate.