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Behind the scenes at the Capitol—and beyond, by Grace Segers

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Social Security?

The retirement-age population is growing. The national birth rate is declining. This spells trouble for the cash-strapped program.

Tom Williams/Getty
Martin O’Malley, Biden’s nominee for commissioner of the Social Security Administration

Social Security is generally considered politically untouchable, but lawmakers have been fretting about its future for months. In March, the Treasury Department reported that the trust funds for the program, which currently provides benefits for 67 million Americans, will be depleted in 2034.

This does not mean that Social Security will be bankrupt; around 80 percent of benefits will be payable through the combined funds of disability insurance and old age and survivors’ insurance. Still, the projection comes one year earlier than last year’s prediction, raising alarm bells about the program’s future.

This will certainly be a topic of concern for Martin O’Malley, the former Maryland governor who was nominated by President Joe Biden to become commissioner of the Social Security Administration. The Senate Finance Committee approved O’Malley’s nomination on a bipartisan basis on Tuesday, although it’s uncertain when he will receive a floor vote.

Laura Haltzel, a senior fellow with the Century Foundation, highlighted the demographic shift that is making Social Security’s revenue stream unsustainable: The retirement-age population is growing while the national birth rate is declining. Over time, in other words, fewer workers will finance the program as more retirees are relying upon it.

“The problem is that you cannot pivot on a dime and create a workforce today,” Haltzel said. With only 10 years until 2034, raising the retirement age—one of the common ideas for solving the solvency problem—is an insufficient solution, Haltzel said. 

The issue is not merely that the workforce cannot accommodate an aging population, said Andrew Biggs, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The problem is also political; once granted, benefits are difficult to revoke. Biggs sourced that dynamic to 1977, when Congress changed the formula for determining Social Security benefits so that they automatically increased, indexed to wage growth—a decision, he said, that “locked in the effects of demographics.”

“Congress loves to promise things. It hates to draw back on promises,” Biggs said. “They were setting in place a massive political problem.” 

Republicans have bristled at Democratic allegations that they wish to cut Social Security—a talking point precipitated by GOP Senator Rick Scott’s proposal to slash the program. GOP lawmakers, perhaps predictably, blame President Joe Biden for claiming that Republicans support cutting Social Security benefits, in his State of the Union address earlier this year.

“It’s too easy to play a political football with,” grumbled Republican Senator Bill Cassidy, who has proposed, along with Senator Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, an independent investment fund to keep Social Security solvent. Another Republican, Senator Mitt Romney, told me that it’s “so easy in this country to demagogue one’s opposition, and to scare seniors into thinking their benefits will be cut.”

But the issue of Social Security is particularly thorny for Republicans, as older Americans skew right. Cutting benefits for currently retired or soon-to-retire Americans is politically impossible. “They do want to address deficits and debt, and yet a huge driver of these deficits and debt is important to their own political base now,” Biggs said about the dilemma for Republican lawmakers.

One proposal some Republicans have floated to increase Social Security revenue is to means-test the program, so that wealthier Americans don’t receive benefits they may not need. “I think the average American who has saved money, has led a blessed life, is willing to take some off of the benefit,” GOP Senator Thom Tillis told me. 

In theory, this is the kind of idea that seems like it would appeal to Democrats. A major tenet of the modern Democratic Party is that the wealthiest Americans should pay their fair share; if they do not need benefits, why should they receive the same amount in Social Security as lower-income Americans? Tillis continued that he mentioned means-testing “because I knew that that would be something on their list.” However, such a change would account for only a small fraction of revenue raised and could potentially hurt those retired and soon-to-retire Americans that all politicians are desperate to protect. Moreover, Democrats are generally loath to cut any benefits—even for wealthier Americans.

Haltzel explained that means-testing Social Security would functionally replicate a program that already exists—Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, which is targeted for low-income retired and disabled Americans—and would undermine the initial purpose of the program. 

“The whole reason that [Social Security] was structured the way it was, was to ensure that every American had a stake in the program,” said Haltzel. Social safety net programs like SSI are often stigmatized and may not receive sufficient funds to help all those in need. Haltzel worried that if Social Security transformed into a welfare program, it would be means-tested to the point where it cuts out those who would benefit from the program.

Vibe check: The commission question 

A major priority for new House Speaker Mike Johnson is establishing a so-called “fiscal commission”: a panel to address the ballooning deficit and interest payments on American debt, as well as Social Security and Medicare’s impending solvency issues. On Wednesday, the House Budget Committee held a hearing on several bipartisan bills to create a fiscal commission.

“We need an outside group of experts to help us learn what the absolute truth is,” said GOP Representative Steve Womack, a co-sponsor of one of the pieces of legislation.

Fiscal commissions have a mixed track record: The 1983 Greenspan Commission helped Congress pursue a path to keeping Social Security solvent—although it fell short of its 75-year goal—but the 2010 Simpson-Bowles commission did little more than raise public awareness about the growing deficit.

Representative Scott Peters, the Democratic co-sponsor of a bill that would create a bipartisan, bicameral commission, including outside experts, told me ahead of the hearing that it was difficult for one party to solve the problem. For example, while Democratic Representative John Larson has introduced a bill to keep Social Security funded, that measure did not make it through the House Ways and Means Committee, even when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress. Not touching Social Security is a “cruel lie,” argued Peters.

“If you want to cut Social Security, what you do is nothing,” Peters said. “But if you want to save Social Security, if you want to save benefits, the sooner we do [take action], the better chance we’ll have.” 

But Representative Brendan Boyle, the ranking Democrat on the committee, noted during the hearing that the conclusions of a fiscal commission—particularly regarding Social Security—will eventually need to be acted upon by a potentially recalcitrant Congress. 

“Ultimately, individuals will have to put up a vote either saying, ‘Yes, this is how we’re going to raise more revenue,’ or ‘Yes, this is how we’re going to enact cuts,’” said Boyle.

Indeed, the problem with receiving a recommendation from a commission is the actual follow-through, which is why several members who have sponsored legislation to create such a panel call for an up-or-down vote on the eventual recommendations.

“Using a commission is the only way that you can actually get something through a filibuster, and also whoever’s in the majority in the House,” said GOP Representative Blake Moore, another member of the House Budget Committee. 

Many Democrats support either eliminating Social Security’s cap on taxable wages, expanding the types of compensation subject to Social Security payroll taxes—fringe benefits like health insurance, for example—or increasing payroll taxes. “The problem has been that, over time, the amount of revenue that is subject to [Social Security payroll] tax has been declining, partially because of a disparity in the way wages have grown,” Haltzel told me. 

Democratic Representative Jim McGovern, who testified at the hearing, worried that Republicans’ promise to not raise taxes would necessarily lead to cuts in Social Security. “It’s not just about getting numbers aligned on the balance sheet, it’s about what our values are,” McGovern said. “If you’ve signed a pledge, ‘No new taxes,’ then revenues are not on the table.”

Congress is not exactly known for its promptness in tackling issues. If Social Security will no longer be solvent as of 2034, it’s easy to see lawmakers not taking any action until the waning months of 2033. Still, Romney, who has co-sponsored another bipartisan bill in the Senate to create a fiscal commission, argued before the House Budget Committee that, regardless of timeline, inaction was not an option.

“If we don’t fix this problem, we’re going to be known as the worst generation,” Romney said.

What I’m reading 

Ridley Scott’s Napoleon: Accidentally a comedy?, by David Klion in The New Republic
Paternity leave alters the brain—suggesting daddies are made, not born, by Chabeli Carranza in The 19th
Antagonisms flare as red states try to dictate how blue cities are run, by Molly Hennessy-Fiske in The Washington Post
Americans are losing benefits. That could hurt Biden in 2024, by Garrett Downs, Olivia Olander, Michael Stratford, and Marcia Brown in Politico
Some Republicans were willing to compromise on abortion ban exceptions. Activists made sure they didn’t, by Kavitha Surana in ProPublica
My father, my faith, and Donald Trump, by Tim Alberta in The Atlantic
Everybody knows Flo from Progressive. Who is Stephanie Courtney?, by Caity Weaver in The New York Times Magazine

Pet of the week

Today’s pet of the week is Robey, submitted by Deborah Hall. Robey is an Anatolian shepherd dog, and will soon celebrate his eighth birthday.

This article first appeared in Inside Washington, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by staff writer Grace Segers. Sign up here.

Farm Bill’s Food Stamp Generosity May Be a Bridge Too Far for Some Freedom Caucusers

Divisions over relief for food insecurity remain a big sticking point as lawmakers try to move this must-pass measure over the goal line.

Tom Williams/Getty Images
Representative Glenn Thompson, chair of the House Agricultural Committee

The continuing resolution to keep the government funded through early next year includes an extension of the farm bill, a massive package of legislation that governs key agriculture and nutrition programs. The farm bill, which is approved roughly every five years, was extended at current levels through the end of September next year.

Congress is regularly late to approve the farm bill, so lawmakers aren’t excessively concerned about an extension. Representative Glenn Thompson, the chair of the House Agriculture Committee, told me that the yearlong extension had more to do with the need for stability in key programs than any pessimism about negotiating the bill in a timely fashion.

“We’re not looking to wait until September to do a farm bill. We have to extend it that far because of the complexities of some of these agricultural programs,” Thompson said. Although some farmers have worried about leaving reference prices to trigger crop insurance at 2018 levels in the year 2023, Thompson and other members believe that extending the bill is better than having nothing at all.

Representative Jim McGovern, a Democratic member of the committee, offered the faint praise that the extension was “clean.” “There’s no right-wing, MAGA, bullshit culture-war attachments to it,” McGovern said. “It gives our farmers and and it gives people who rely on nutrition programs some peace of mind that this won’t all come crashing to a halt anytime soon.”

Another Republican member of the committee, Representative Zach Nunn, echoed that sentiment. “I think it’s incredibly important that we provide certainty for our farmers,” Nunn said. “I’ve already got guys back in Iowa who have made decisions on what they’re going to plant, how they’re going to harvest, what livestock operations are going to look like. And so giving them a long runway is important.”

The farm bill is a traditionally bipartisan measure, bolstered by a marriage of rural agricultural interests and nutrition assistance advocates. The largest part of the farm bill is also the most controversial: the nutrition title, which includes funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, more colloquially known as food stamps. Members of the conservative Freedom Caucus have vented their spleen about the farm bill extension, indicating that spending on SNAP is a nonstarter for them.

“The farm bill itself represents everything that’s wrong with Washington, because the farm aspect of it only comprises about 25 percent of the bill,” said Representative Bob Good, a member of the Freedom Caucus. “You’re hijacking, holding hostage, the farm portion to the welfare part of it.”

The bill that raised the debt limit in June included tightening of work requirements for able-bodied adults without children up to a certain age, although it also strengthened exceptions. However, some conservative Republicans believe that SNAP needs to be further adjudicated. Representative Barry Moore, another member of the committee and of the Freedom Caucus, said that it was “certainly possible” some conservative Republicans would withhold their votes due to their frustrations with SNAP.

Thompson told me that any opposition to the farm bill based on wanting to cut SNAP further is “unfortunately out of ignorance.” “People that really don’t understand the program, they’re not aware of how the program actually works and the changes and refinements that we’ve made—significant ones—earlier this year,” said Thompson.

Representative Don Bacon, another GOP committee member, predicted that Democratic votes would make up for opposition from hard-line Republicans.

“A lot of them come from agricultural areas, so it totally eludes me,” said Bacon.

Vibe check: No rest for the WIC

The continuing resolution keeping the government open through early next year did not include emergency funding for the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, commonly referred to as WIC. The Biden administration had requested an additional $1.4 billion to maintain the program amid an increase in participation and an uptick in food costs.

Like the continuing resolution passed in September, the one considered by Congress this week includes flexibilities to keep WIC afloat in the near future. But that’s only a short-term solution, said Nell Menefee-Libey, the public policy manager at the National WIC Association.

“I​​t’s something of a BandAid on a bullet hole, because we’re really borrowing against the program’s future, and jeopardizing the long-term stability and flexibility to serve families,” Menefee-Libey said. “It’s really, really discouraging that Congress hasn’t indicated that they intend to maintain the tradition of full funding for the program, and that has engendered a lot of uncertainty.”

Democrats are worried over the future of WIC, but they currently lack a clear answer for how they will keep the program afloat. “We’ll be searching for a way to get that funding, but when you look at what’s happening in the House, where it’s considered a miracle to get a C.R. passed … that’s a daunting challenge,” said Democratic Senator Peter Welch.

The emergency funding for WIC, while a priority for many Democrats, was not on the top of the list for Republicans. “If the Democrat allegation is that the C.R. does not meet every single one of their policy desires, they’re right,” said GOP Representative Dusty Johnson. “I’ve yet to see a legislative vehicle deliver every single win that any single person wanted. Welcome to the game.”

McGovern argued that his Republican colleagues did not appreciate the urgency of the situation. “They have no clue. Either that, or they don’t give shit. It’s one or the other, and both are unforgivable,” he said.

Menefee-Libey said that state directors administering WIC “maybe do not have the faith that Congress will fully fund the program.”

“If we, God forbid, get to January and have a full-year appropriations vehicle that doesn’t fully fund the program, then state directors would be in the position of having to turn folks away for the first time in nearly three decades,” she said. “So new moms in the middle of a national maternal health crisis will lose access to WIC, as well as, the kids on the program could also be turned away. It’s just a disastrous result.”

Vibe check: Let them fight

The House has been in session for 10 weeks in a row, and the Senate for five weeks. And lately, perhaps in part due to pent-up frustration from having to actually go into the office, lawmakers are getting a little punchy—literally. The girls are fightingggg.

This week, Representative Tim Burchett, one of the eight Republicans to vote to oust Kevin McCarthy as speaker, was left fuming after McCarthy elbowed him in the back. (McCarthy denies it was intentional.) Meanwhile, in the upper House, Senator Markwayne Mullin challenged a witness at a hearing to a fistfight. And to round out the ill-tempered shenanigans, Representative James Comer, the chair of the Oversight Committee, called Democratic Representative Jared Moskowitz a Smurf.

And that was all on Tuesday.

GOP Senator Kevin Cramer expounded on the bad vibes in Congress, writing the chaotic mood down to the fact that it was just about time to head home for Thanksgiving recess. When I pointed out that most Americans don’t have the luxury of getting cranky just because they’re forced to work multiple weeks in a row, Cramer noted that Congress was filled with strong personalities. (Democrats will mention that this week’s perpetrators were all Republicans, but some of them also have a history of public sparring.)

“There aren’t a lot of shrinking violets in Congress. You got here by telling everybody you’re better than the other person and bragging on yourself,” said Cramer. “It’s not concerning to me. I think it’s plenty entertaining. I tried to keep it a little bit above that myself, but even I’m capable, every now and then, of losing it.”

Other senators were not as equable. Democratic Senator Tina Smith told HuffPost that “this kind of behavior is unacceptable.”

“I actually got up and left before it was over because I was so upset by what Senator Mullin did. It’s a result of people having bad judgment who don’t seem to be able to detach from a policy disagreement,” Smith said.

Men (in Congress) will literally threaten violence in the hallowed halls of the Capitol instead of going to therapy.

What I’m reading

The Confederate general whom all the other Confederates hated, by Eric Foner in The Atlantic

The lie of “deinfluencing,” by Rebecca Jennings in Vox

The final frontier for helicopter parents, by Juno DeMeio in The Cut

What happened to ‘woke’? How the right’s rallying cry faded away, by Dave Weigel in Semafor

What does the Kennedy name mean now? by Maura Judkis in The Washington Post

How Trump and his allies plan to wield power in 2025, by Jonathan Swan, Maggie Haberman, and Charlie Savage in The New York Times

The latest culture war starts with dead whales, by Molly Taft in The New Republic

Pet of the Week

Today’s pet of the week is Sundae Breeze, submitted by Ali Feldman. She’s a very social pup: According to Ali, you can find Sundae on Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok.