Get the Facts: Social Security & Medicare

Although I’ve been saying this since becoming a U.S. Senator, I recently came under attack (again) for suggesting we ought to be paying attention to the sustainability of Social Security, Medicare, and other “mandatory” spending programs, by putting everything “on budget” as discretionary spending. We should also be concerned about our $30.6 trillion national debt, but few in Washington D.C. are.  

There are two categories of federal spending: mandatory and discretionary. As it’s name suggests, mandatory spending is on auto-pilot and represented $3.53 trillion (70.3%) of federal spending in FY2021. Discretionary spending is subject to the annual appropriation process (which is horribly broken) and represents the other $1.49 trillion (29.7%) of FY2021 spending.

One of the main reasons we are $30.6 trillion in debt with virtually no chance of preventing its burgeoning growth is the dysfunction of Congress, in particular, its budgetary process.  According to the Budget Act of 1974, Congress should pass a budget every year and then using that budget as a guide, pass bills to fund the 12 appropriation accounts. These bills should be passed before the fiscal year begins. Since I arrived in 2011, Congress has failed to abide by this law every year.

The Budget process only covers discretionary spending – there is no congressional action required to fund the mandatory accounts. Based on the dysfunction described above, I can understand why many, if not most, would say that’s a good thing. But it’s not. As broken as it is, the budget process is the only mechanism that prompts an annual review of programs and spending. 

Without oversight, and because of neglect, the entitlement programs so many Americans now rely on are not on a sustainable course. According to its trustees, the Social Security Trust Fund will be depleted by 2035. The Medicare Part A Trust Fund will be depleted by 2028. No one can say with certainty what will actually happen when these trust funds run dry.

Without the trust fund, Social Security revenue in 2035 is projected to only cover 80% of promised benefits. Either the benefits will have to be cut, or the shortfall will have to be appropriated from the general fund through discretionary spending. This outcome will also be true for any shortfall in Medicare.

Here are questions we should be asking when the trust funds are depleted, but we’re not:   Will we be able to fund these shortfalls? Will the U.S. dollar still be the world’s reserve currency? What interest rate will the U.S. government be paying on its debt when these shortfalls occur? How much of annual federal spending will interest expense consume? What would be the impact of any shortfalls? 

Except for the trustees and a few economists, virtually no one is asking these questions or paying any attention to what will happen. It’s like our society is collectively whistling past the proverbial graveyard. 

The first step in solving any problem is admitting you have one. Clearly, deficit spending and growing debt are not being addressed. It’s way past time to start.

First, we need to fix the annual budget process. That will take leadership that currently doesn’t exist. If Republicans retake the Senate majority next year, I will press our conference to commit to restoring order to the Senate by adhering to a calendar schedule.

It would start with passing a budget by the end of February. Because it’s impossible to immediately balance the budget, an increase in the debt ceiling would have to be passed to accommodate the deficit. Instead of slipping a debt ceiling increase in a “must pass” piece of legislation, we should use the opportunity as it was intended – to force some fiscal discipline on Congress. My suggestion would be to attach the following fiscal control bills to any debt ceiling increase: a Full Faith and Credit Act that prioritizes spending to prevent default on our debt, the Preventing Government Shutdown Act to fund government at the previous year’s level in the event appropriation bills aren’t passed before the start of the fiscal year; the REINS Act to restrain the growth of burdensome regulations; and finally, Reducing the Size of the Federal Government Through Attrition Act which would start shrinking government agencies over time without having to lay anyone off.

The next step would be to schedule Appropriation bills for consideration on the Senate floor.  These should be prioritized based on the Constitutional enumerated powers. I would start the first week in April with the Defense Appropriation bill. Because of its importance, I would allow two weeks for debate. The remaining Appropriations bills would each be allotted one week of debate. Adhering to this schedule would allow for all Appropriations bills to be considered and voted on before the start of the fiscal year.

I am under no illusion that Democrats would necessarily provide the votes to exceed the 60 vote threshold on any of these measures, but at least the American public would see who is obstructing a functional process. 

The government has made promises it cannot keep. Unfortunately, most in Washington would rather demagogue than have serious conversations to save these important programs. I will not shy away from this conversation. It’s too important to all Americans and the nation’s future.

That is not the direction or path that Democrats have put us on, which is why they need to be swept from power in November. Helping me win re-election in November is crucial to holding Democrats accountable. To date, Democrats and their allies have spent $70 million on false attack ads to defeat me. I will need significant help to effectively counter their lies and distortions. Any financial support you are willing to offer will be greatly appreciated.