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The Oklahoman: Rep. Tom Cole's laudable effort to keep Social Security afloat

March 29, 2015
News Stories

The Oklahoman - Editorial Board

NO, U.S. Rep. Tom Cole isn’t bored and simply looking for a challenge. Instead Cole, R-Moore, says his decision to try to come up with a way to keep Social Security afloat is based on a firm belief that it can be done.

“The problem is it’s easily fixed,” Cole said in an interview last week. “It’s the politics that’s hard.”

In 2014, 24 percent of all federal spending went to pay for Social Security. When you add in Medicare, Medicaid, welfare and other benefit programs, and the interest on the debt, these programs combine to eat up two-thirds of all federal monies. And yet reform proposals routinely get shot down in Washington.

Recall President Barack Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission, which included then-Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee. Among other things, it recommended changes to Social Security. Obama never endorsed the commission plan (which also failed to get enough support from commission members to require a vote of Congress). Democrats have been so protective of Social Security that they have sought through the years to require a two-thirds vote in the Senate, instead of a simple majority, to make any changes to the system.

But Cole believes he can return to his district “and defend anything to save Social Security, because it really is the most popular program.” In addition, he said, most people recognize that some changes need to be made.

Cole has joined with Rep. John K. Delaney, a Democrat from Maryland, in filing a bill to establish a 13-member commission to make recommendations on keeping Social Security from going under. The need is there: Cole and Delaney point out that current projections show the program’s combined trust funds won’t be able to meet obligations beginning in 2033.

The panel would be bipartisan, with members appointed by House and Senate leaders from both parties, and the president. The group would have a year to do its work and present its recommendations to Congress for an up-or-down vote. The fact that each recommendation has to earn nine commission votes ensures bipartisan buy-in.

The process is similar to one in 1983 that helped extend Social Security’s solvency for decades. Cole said it’s possible, perhaps likely, that some of the recommendations made by this group will be similar to those made three decades ago. For example, a gradual increase in the age of eligibility might be a suggestion, or an index adjustment that slows the growth of benefits for upper-income Americans.

“They’re politically challenging, no doubt about it,” Cole said. He added, though, that, “I think the American people are more sensible than the American Congress is, and more sensible than the special interests” that work so hard to keep the status quo.

There’s no serious debate about whether something needs to be done to ensure Social Security’s long-term future. The year 2033 will be here before you know it. If the program’s trust fund runs dry, Cole said, the average benefit would fall by 22 percent immediately.

“We need to fix this thing,” he said. “The later you wait, the more expensive the fix will become.”

Cole says he and Delaney are of a mind that “if we could ever get the process going, we could get to the end point.” Congress should support this important effort, and we salute both men for taking the lead.

Online: The Oklahoman