The Peterson Foundation's Solutions Initiative III produced five different fiscal plans that would improve the current long-term budget outlook. We have already gone over the topline numbers for the plans, but another important aspect is how they get to those numbers. Below are four takeaways from the policies that the plans propose.
Consensus on the Gas Tax
Lawmakers will have to find a way to fund the Highway Trust Fund in the next few months, and one of the possible solutions that has gained popularity with the current relatively low gas prices has been raising the gas tax. Four of the five plans - the American Action Forum (AAF) being the exception - proposed increasing the gas tax by a significant amount. The American Enterprise Institute (AEI) would increase it by 11.7 cents and index it to inflation, the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) would increase it by 15 cents and index it to inflation, and the Center for American Progress (CAP) and Economic Policy Institute (EPI) would increase it by an unspecified amount. AEI's and BPC's increases would fully close the trust fund shortfall through 2025. We also proposed increasing fuel taxes by 9 cents in our plan The Road to Sustainable Highway Spending.
No One Likes the Sequester
The sequester will be a big deal in the coming months when lawmakers will have to decide the level of spending for appropriations. The President's budget would repeal most of the sequester for FY 2016, while the Congressional budget would leave the sequester in place but provide backdoor sequester relief for defense through the war spending category. A notable theme in the think tanks' plans is that all of them propose some form of sequester relief, and three of them would provide sequester relief to both defense and non-defense. The only plans that left the sequester in place were AEI's for non-defense spending and EPI's for defense spending. Clearly, none of the plans were satisfied with the tight caps that the sequester prescribes, although they varied on how much to lift them (AEI stood out in particular on defense, while EPI had much, much higher non-defense caps). Although these plans do not make changes to the budget until FY 2017, their approaches can be instructive for lawmakers for FY 2016.
With the Social Security trust funds facing a significant shortfall over the next 75 years and expected to run out of money within 20 years, Alicia Munnell of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College highlights two loopholes that could be closed to improve the program's solvency in a small but meaningful way.
Noting that creative ways to maximize Social Security benefits have been gaining popularity in recent years, Munnell focuses on two strategies to exploit loopholes she and her colleagues discussed in 2009 policy briefs, which have yet to be closed (the third loophole she highlighted has since been shut down through a new Social Security Administration regulation).
The first allows married beneficiaries reaching the normal retirement age (NRA, currently 66) to choose either to claim their own worker or spousal benefits (which is equal to one-half of your spouse's benefit), and the option to switch their choice later. This gives them the option of claiming a spousal benefit at age 66 and then switching over to their own unaffected retirement benefit when it maxes out at age 70, effectively giving the individual up to four years of the spousal benefit entirely on top of their own earned benefit. This loophole achieves no policy goal, and appears the result of a historical accident.
What we failed to mention is that our readers could analyze this and other plans themselves through CRFB's interactive Social Security Reformer tool. The Social Security Reformer allows users to simulate an existing plan or create their own. Although the Social Security Reformer does not have every permutation of every Social Security policy out there, it has enough capability to understand the broad financial impact of most Social Security plans, as well as the impact in each year.
This morning, Governor Chris Christie (R-NJ) delivered an important speech in New Hampshire on the need for entitlement reform. The speech not only focused on the need to address the rapid growth of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid but actually put forward a plan to begin addressing these issues. By our rough estimate -- and depending on many of the details -- this plan would save over $1 trillion in the next decade alone while significantly improving the solvency of Social Security and Medicare.
Below is a short summary of Governor Christie's plan.
Social Security Reform
In his speech, Governor Christie called for Social Security reform, explaining that the program "is slowly working its way to insolvency – which the actuaries say will come in the early 2030s, less than 20 years from now... as the number of workers relative to the number of beneficiaries continues to shrink."
To address Social Security's looming insolvency, Christie proposes a number of changes. The most significant policy, in terms of savings, would be to raise the normal retirement age by two months per year from age 67 in 2022 (as under current law) to age 69, and then index it for life expectancy. At the same time, his plan would raise the earliest eligibility age from 62 to 64.
In addition, Christie proposes to calculate COLAs based on the more accurate chained CPI (with a benefit bump-up for 85 year olds), to phase out Social Security benefits for the highest earning seniors (phased out between $80,000 and $200,000 of non-Social Security income), and to eliminate the payroll tax for senior workers.
The bipartisan duo of Reps. John Delaney (D-MD) and Tom Cole (R-OK) have reprised a bill from last year to create a Social Security Commission. The bipartisan and bicameral commission would be required to come up with a plan to make Social Security solvent for 75 years.
The commission would involve 13 members, with 3 each appointed by the party leaders in the House and Senate and a Chair appointed by the President. It would have to report its recommendations within one year of its first meeting, and it would take 9 votes for the report to be sent to Congress. At that point, the legislation would get expedited consideration and an up-or-down vote in Congress.
Both Congressmen stressed the need to make changes to Social Security to avoid a large across-the-board cut in benefits when the program goes insolvent, currently projected to happen in 2033 according to the Social Security Trustees. Both also noted the need to move quickly, a smart move because the needed changes get larger the longer we wait.
Ed Lorenzen, Senior Advisor for the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, testified Wednesday in front of the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee on maintaining the solvency of the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund.
Without congressional action, the trust fund reserves will be depleted next year. The exhaustion of the DI fund, one of the upcoming fiscal speedbumps, would result in a roughly 20 percent across-the-board benefit cut. The President has proposed reallocating money from the Old Age fund to bolster the DI fund. This measure, known as a reallocation, has sparked much debate after a new House rule was adopted requiring legislation implementing such a transfer to also include reforms.
Proponents argue that reallocation is a routine measure, enacted numerous times in the past, and is therefore adequate in the current situation. In his testimony, Lorenzen explained that previous reallocations have often been accompanied by reforms, a precedent that's particularly important to follow this time.
After a thorough review of past reallocations, Lorenzen reaches four major conclusions:
Jim Kolbe and Charlie Stenholm are former members of Congress and members of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget. Jim Kolbe (R-AZ) served from 1985 to 2007, while Charlie Stenholm (D-TX) served from 1979 to 2005. They wrote a commentary that appeared in Roll Call, which appears below.
The President proposed last week, through his FY 2016 budget, a number of proposals to reform Social Security in small ways, including measures to shore up the strained Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) Trust Fund by shifting funds from the Old-Age and Survivors' Insurance (OASI) Fund and to improve data sharing and coordination with other agencies. Overall, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) estimates that these measures would save money through better program integrity and increased payroll revenues for the program. OMB expects that over the next 10 years these changes will cut Social Security's costs by $14 billion and increase revenue by roughly $46 billion.
Here is a summary of the President’s proposed changes to the SSDI program:
- Reallocating payroll taxes from OASI to SSDI. The budget proposes reallocating an additional 0.9 percent of the payroll tax from the old-age program to the disability program for five years in order to extend the life of the SSDI trust fund to about 2033.
- Completing Continuing Disability Reviews (CDRs). The budget proposes mandatory funding for CDRs starting in 2017. Annual funding would be determined through a formula rather than the appropriations process. The budget proposes $15.2 billion of new spending for CDRs through 2025 which would generate estimated savings of $37.7 billion. About 80 percent of the spending and a similar proportion of the savings would go to and come from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, leaving $7 billion of net savings to the SSDI program.
In addition to updating budget projections, CBO's baseline also looks at the state of various government trust funds over the next ten years. Two of the trust funds – the Highway Trust Fund (HTF) and Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) will have to be dealt with this year or next. The other two with later exhaustion dates – Social Security Old Age and Survivors' Insurance (OASI) and Medicare Hospital Insurance (HI) – have both seen a drop in the size of reserves. Here's a rundown of each of these four trust funds.
Highway Trust Fund
The last time lawmakers dealt with highway financing, they intended that the expiration of the highway bill and the exhaustion of the HTF both happen at the end of May. Now, it looks like there may be a little time between the two as the general revenue transfer to the HTF may last longer.
Previously, CBO expected there to be a $2 billion shortfall in FY 2015, but that gap has been wiped out in the newest projections by two developments: slightly higher gas tax revenue (from lower gas prices increasing demand) and slightly lower spending from lawmakers freezing spending in 2015 rather than letting it grow with inflation. These developments mean that lawmakers may be able to wait until the summer to deal with the HTF, thus theoretically allowing them to write a new highway bill without dealing with the financing gap for a little bit. These two developments also make a long-term solution slightly easier, reducing the trust fund shortfall by about $10 billion.
Disability Insurance Trust Fund