Social Security expansion bill poised to gain traction in Congress, targeting those who earn over $400,000

  • The measure, which would expand benefits for current and future recipients, would extend the program's solvency for 75 years, according to Social Security's Office of the Chief Actuary.
  • To help fund the proposed changes, earnings above $400,000 would be subject to Social Security taxes. In 2019, earnings above $132,900 are not subject to the levy.
  • The payroll tax also would gradually rise to 14.8 percent from the current 12.4 percent by 2043, with workers and their employers splitting that tax as they already do.

As Social Security's funding problems loom ever closer on the horizon, the program has emerged as a pet project on many lawmakers' fix-it list.

Now in control of the House, Democrats have thrown their weight behind a measure that would extend and expand the program — largely by asking high earners to pony up, along with a gradual increase in the Social Security tax rate that applies to workers' income.

"Democrats have agreed that we should expand, not cut, Social Security and have the wealthy pay their share," said Nancy Altman, president of advocacy group Social Security Works.

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Due to a variety of factors — including an aging demographic, longer life spans, lower birth rates and the widening income gap — the Social Security Trustees 2018 report projects that beneficiaries will see a 21 percent cut in benefits by 2034 unless Congress takes action to prevent the funding shortfall. The Congressional Budget Office's estimate is more dire, pegging the year at 2031.

More than 200 lawmakers, all Democrats, have signed onto the Social Security 2100 Act in the House. Introduced by Rep. John Larson, D-Connecticut, the bill would require that earnings above $400,000 be subject to the payroll tax that funds the program.

Currently, earnings above a certain level — $132,900 for 2019 — are not subject to Social Security taxation. This means someone who makes $132,900 pays the same amount into the program as someone earning, say, $1 million.

A CBO report released in December shows that because earnings for the highest-paid workers have grown faster than the average wage, about 83 percent of earnings fell below the Social Security's taxable wage cap in 2016, down from 90 percent in 1983.

"When Congress enacted Social Security changes in 1983, no one anticipated the income stagnation," Altman said.

The bill also would gradually increase the payroll contribution by workers and employers to 7.4 percent each by 2043 from 6.2 percent (to 14.8 percent altogether from the current 12.4 percent).

Social Security recipients also would benefit, getting an increase of about 2 percent of average benefits. And, the yearly cost-of-living adjustment — called COLA — would use a different formula to determine annual bumps intended to more accurately reflects rising costs for older Americans.

Additionally, the bill also would create a new minimum benefit set at 125 percent of the poverty line and take other steps to ease financial pressure on retirees, including doubling the amount of Social Security income that isn't subject to taxation.

The end result would be extended solvency for the program for 75 years, according to Social Security's Office of the Chief Actuary.

A recent poll conducted by The Senior Citizens League of its members explored what they thought the new Congress should focus on. Boosting Social Security benefits was cited by 42 percent, followed by reducing taxation of those benefits at 31 percent (reducing prescription drug prices came in third, at 18 percent).

"I think there's a growing sense that something needs to be done," said Mary Johnson, Social Security and Medicare policy analyst for the league. "It can take time to get legislation with many moving parts up and running, so you need to allow time to phase in changes."

However, congressional Republicans typically have balked at the idea of expanding the program due to the associated higher taxes that would come with it, and past GOP proposals have advocated reducing benefits as a way to ease the program's financial woes.

And, not everyone supports a program expansion.

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"Expanding benefits could help low-income retirees, but middle and high-income workers would likely reduce their personal savings in response to higher expected Social Security benefits," said Andrew Biggs a resident scholar of the American Enterprise Institute, according to written testimony presented at recent congressional hearing about retirement security. Biggs was a deputy commissioner of Social Security under President George W. Bush.

Biggs also said that while tax increases would eliminate shortfalls, higher taxes could increase borrowing and debt by low-income workers and reduce work and encourage tax evasion by higher earners, according to his written testimony.

While it's not certain whether Larson's bill would be able to clear the House in its present form anyway, a Democrat-controlled House bodes well that it could progress.

However, as with most major pieces of legislation, it could go through various iterations before facing approval or rejection by the full House. And even if it made it through, the measure would also need approval from the Republican-dominated Senate, where priorities could be much different.

"If it gets through the House, and then goes to the Senate and doesn't get brought up for debate or a vote, it's going to be a 2020 election campaign issue," Altman said.