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Friday, December 19, 2014
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Published: Friday, 8/17/2012

GUEST EDITORIAL

Biden's flat promise

While most other people were debating Vice President Joe Biden's infamous commentary on shackling, we were more disheartened by his comment on Social Security, delivered the same day to little response -- maybe because pandering is no longer news.

As has been by now widely discussed, Mr. Biden told a heavily African-American audience this week that Republican Mitt Romney, if elected president, was "going to put y'all back in chains." Mr. Romney read the remark as a reference to slavery and proclaimed himself highly affronted. The Biden comment was dumb and uncalled for; the Romney reaction tactical and over the top.

On the same trip, Mr. Biden said: "Let's talk about Social Security. Number one, I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security."

Why is this depressing? Because, as Mr. Biden knows, Social Security is going broke. If "no changes" are made, by 2033 the program will not be able to pay benefits.

In their annual report in April, the trustees of the Social Security Trust Fund noted that the disability portion of the fund "becomes exhausted in 2016, so legislative action is needed as soon as possible." The overall fund, combining retirement and disability, will "become exhausted and unable to pay scheduled benefits in full on a timely basis in 2033."

That leaves Congress with four choices, the trustees explained: Raise the payroll tax, reduce benefits, devote other revenue to Social Security, or develop some combination of the above.

Here's the really depressing part: Fixing Social Security is far easier than reining in Medicare, Medicaid, and other health-care costs. Tweak the inflation calculator and moderately raise the income limit for applying the payroll tax, and you can shore up Social Security with no harm to the safety net.

White House officials said Mr. Biden's "flat guarantee" was not meant to convey a change in administration position, which they said is best understood from Mr. Obama's 2011 State of the Union address, which called for "a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations." That speech was no profile in courage: Mr. Obama opposed "slashing" benefits for future retirees.

But that presumably, if tacitly, left room for trimming benefits. The President went further in failed negotiations with House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio last summer, putting on the table changes in the way Social Security cost-of-living adjustments are calculated.

By contrast, Mr. Biden's hearty assurances will make even more difficult the governing decisions that become more expensive and more painful with every year of delay.

-- Washington Post



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