Is a "Backroom Scheme" to Cut Social Security Benefits About to Be Passed?

Social Security provides benefits to millions of retirees, survivors of retired workers, and disabled individuals. It's also a political lightning rod.

The House Budget Committee passed the Fiscal Commission Act of 2024 on Jan. 18. Although the committee has a Republican majority, the bill received votes from both GOP and Democratic members.

However, the Fiscal Commission Act has been criticized by other Democrats. Senate Finance Committee Chair Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) released a statement that called the bill a "backroom scheme to cut Social Security."

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What the bill would do

Under the Fiscal Commission Act, a bipartisan commission would be created to recommend policies to "meaningfully improve the long-term fiscal condition of the federal government." The commission would focus especially on identifying ways to reach a national debt-to-GDP (gross domestic product) ratio of no more than 100% by 2039. It would also recommend how to address the solvency issues for Social Security and Medicare.

This commission would have 16 members in total. Twelve would be from the U.S. Congress -- six Democrats and six Republicans. The other four commission members (two appointed by Democrats and two appointed by Republicans) would be outside experts who would participate in deliberations but wouldn't have a vote on the recommendations.

Any recommendations made by the commission would require a majority of the 12 members of Congress. Also, at least two Democratic members and two GOP members would have to support the recommendations for them to be referred to the full Congress.

The commission would be required to issue a final report and recommendations by May 2025. Those recommendations would then move forward under an expedited process for a full vote in Congress.

What's all the fuss about?

The U.S. national debt currently tops $34 trillion and continues to grow. Social Security will become insolvent by 2033, according to the latest Congressional Budget Office analysis. The CBO projects that Medicare will be insolvent in 2030.

Both Democrats and Republicans agree that something must be done. So what's all the fuss about with the Fiscal Commission Act? It centers largely on a statement by House Budget Committee chairman Jodey Arrington (R-West Texas) that "everything's on the table."

Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Philadelphia), the ranking Democrat on the House Budget Committee, expressed concern that some want the commission to be "a backdoor way to force through unpopular cuts." His view aligns with that of Sen. Wyden, who stated, "The term 'fiscal commission' is the ultimate Washington buzzword, and it translates to trading away Americans' earned benefits in a secretive, closed-door process." House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) called the bill "a direct circumvention of the process to expedite cuts to Social Security."

However, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) called the bill "a positive step toward fiscal sanity." Rep. Arrington said, "With our nation staring down over $34 trillion in debt, members across the aisle know that our spending is unsustainable, and we must change course." He added, "While a commission is not a panacea for all our problems, it can offer a productive, depoliticized forum for educating the public and identifying solutions regarding our deficit spending and long-term unfunded liabilities."

Social Security on highway sign.

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Will the bill be passed and Social Security benefits cut?

It's uncertain if the Fiscal Commission Act will win enough votes to pass in the House. Rep. Jeffries maintained, "If it's not clear that Social Security and Medicare are protected, then it will be my expectation that there will be a lukewarm response at best when it hits the floor."

However, some Democrats support the idea of creating a commission to address the nation's fiscal problems. A companion bill is also being sponsored in the Senate by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W. Va.) and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah).

It's also uncertain if the Fiscal Commission would recommend cuts to Social Security benefits, even if the Fiscal Commission Act is passed. There are other ways to address the issues facing the federal program that don't require benefit cuts.

What is certain, though, is that Social Security benefits will eventually be cut when the program's trust funds run out of money unless significant changes are made. It's also a certainty that Social Security will continue to be a political lightning rod.

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