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Michael Hiltzik

Social Security advocates who breathed a sigh of relief when Senate Republicans rejected President Trump’s demand to place a payroll cut in the latest coronavirus relief bill exhaled too soon.

The version unveiled Monday by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) incorporates a provision even more menacing for Social Security (and Medicare too).

This is the so-called TRUST Act, which was crafted by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and has been bubbling along in Capitol Hill corridors since last year.

They are plotting to use the cover of the pandemic to slash Social Security.

Nancy Altman, Social Security Works

The TRUST Act is a device to tamper with Social Security behind closed doors and in a way that would allow senators and members of Congress to wreak havoc on the program without leaving fingerprints.

The TRUST Act is now a provision of the HEALS Act — the Senate GOP’s opening bid on coronavirus relief. So it’s timely to give it a close look.

We’ll start by pointing out that Social Security advocates are universally opposed to the measure, which they see, correctly, as an expression of longtime conservative hostility to the program.

“In the midst of a catastrophic pandemic,” says Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, Republicans “should be focused on protecting seniors, essential workers, and the unemployed. Instead, they are plotting to use the cover of the pandemic to slash Social Security.”

The TRUST Act — the acronym stands portentously for “Time to Rescue United States’ Trusts” — would work by ginning up a sense of near-term emergency about the finances of Social Security, Medicare and the federal highway trust fund.

The crisis is largely imaginary, for the Social Security trust fund, by far the biggest of the reserves with $2.9 trillion today, is not in danger of exhaustion for at least 15 years. Nevertheless, the TRUST Act would require the Treasury to issue a report on the status of the funds within 45 days of the measure’s passage.

Congress would then appoint bipartisan committees mandated to “draft legislation that restores solvency and otherwise improves each trust fund program,” as Romney has described the process. Whatever proposals these panels produced would be fast-tracked in Congress and not subject to amendment. (The bills would need 60 votes in the Senate.)

On the surface, this seems almost innocuous — so much so that the act has attracted co-sponsorships from a handful of inattentive and somewhat conservative Democrats, including Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona. They should pay better attention.

Romney has stated that his model for the TRUST Act is the Simpson-Bowles fiscal commission empaneled by Barack Obama in 2010. That should be a dead giveaway of the dangers.

That commission, which was headed by former Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) and Erskine Bowles, an ex-investment banker claiming Democratic Party cred from a stint as President Clinton’s chief of staff, was a mess. Its goal was to produce some putatively bipartisan recommendations for deficit reduction, but it was unable to come up with any that could garner a majority vote, so it never actually produced any recommendations.

The proposals that did surface were generally good for the wealthy, not so good for the middle class or low-income Americans. Matters weren’t helped by Simpson’s ignorance about Social Security, which he expressed in unbelievably crass language — at one point referring to the program, which provides more than half the income for two-thirds of all American retirees, as “a milk cow with 310 million tits.”

Since the TRUST panels’ deliberations will be offered to Congress on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, the process rather serves what the GOP refers to as the need to gut Social Security “behind closed doors,” to quote an unwittingly revealing line uttered last year by Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

It should be obvious that if fiscal changes in Social Security are favorable for the broad public — say by raising payroll taxes on wealthier Americans who currently get a break on them — they don’t have to be crafted behind closed doors or outsourced to a committee that absolves most senators and representatives of responsibility.

If they involve cutting benefits, a step that would harm the majority of retirees and rank-and-file workers, then it pays to do the work in secret.

So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the biggest fans of the TRUST Act are water-carriers for richer Americans. They include the Committee for a Responsible Budget, which was supported for years by the late hedge fund billionaire Pete Peterson, by both Simpson and Bowles, and by the Koch-financed organization Americans for Prosperity.

One shouldn’t be fooled by these TRUST Act advocates’ assertions that Social Security needs to be “fixed.” Down deep, they mean “fixed” in the sense that one “fixes” a cat or the Mafia “fixes” a snitch. Democrats on Capitol Hill should keep their wits about them, and “fix” the TRUST Act before it goes any further.

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