The House on Tuesday passed legislation laying out parliamentary rules for the year. The bill included a little-noticed provision blocking Congress from shifting funds to prevent a 2016 shortfall in Social Security's disability insurance program.
The Social Security Administration's actuaries have projected that the disability insurance program's trust fund will run out of money next year, resulting in a 20 percent benefit reduction for nearly 11 million Americans. Since last year, Social Security advocates have been calling on lawmakers to shift funds from the retirement program to make up the difference -- something Congress has done 11 times since the 1950s.
Democratic aides said the Social Security provision was added to the broader rules package by surprise late Monday night. The broader bill, which the House approved on a largely party-line vote Tuesday, says it would be out of order for Congress to reduce the actuarial balance of the Social Security retirement account. (The rules legislation also included a controversial provision requiring the Congressional Budget Office to give more favorable analysis to tax cuts for the rich.)
Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee that oversees Social Security, championed the rule's Social Security provision and said shifting the funds would constitute a "raid" on retirement insurance, which is solvent until 2033.
"This is worse than kicking the can down the road -- it will actually make the retirement program worse off, and it does nothing to fix the disability program," Johnson said in a press release.
"To address this issue, my measure creates a point-of-order to prohibit any diversion of funds from the retirement program to the disability program," Johnson said. "But more than that, the rule seeks to encourage much-needed reform.”
Congress could prevent the shortfall by raising taxes, cutting benefits, or both -- though cuts are a favored GOP option. Many Republicans have lamented the rise in disability rolls, which they have suggested is something of a welfare sham. Johnson described the program as "fraud-plagued."
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) sharply criticized the measure in a Tuesday statement that argued shifting Social Security funds from retirement insurance to disability insurance has been routine in the past.
“Reallocation has never been controversial, but detractors working to privatize Social Security will do anything to manufacture a crisis out of a routine administrative function,” Brown said. "Rather than solve the short-term problems facing the Social Security Disability program as we have in the past, Republicans want to set the stage to cut benefits for seniors and disabled Americans."
Social Security Works, an advocacy group that opposes benefit cuts, called the GOP strategy "hostage taking."
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) blasted the rule on Twitter.