We’ve told you before that Social Security’s future looks rocky. We base this on no less an authority than the trustees of the Social Security system itself, and its head trustee, Steven Mnuchin—who also dabbles from time to time in another big job: Secretary of the United States Treasury.
The trustees have warned that Social Security will begin paying out more than it takes in by 2021—less than three years from now, and come 2034—barely 15 years away—payouts could be slashed about 23%, unless steps are taken to beef up the wobbly program. If that’s not bad news for the tens of millions of Americans who are counting on Social Security to be there in the future—I don’t know what is.
But instead of beefing up Social Security, what are lawmakers proposing to do? Raid it to pay for another federal program.
Here’s the idea: If you’re the proud parents of a new baby (congrats!), Marco Rubio, the Republican senator from Florida, thinks you should have paid leave from Uncle Sam for up to six months. Here’s the catch: If you take, say, six months of benefits now, you’ll have to wait that long to begin taking Social Security when you retire a few decades from now.
Rubio’s idea means tinkering with an existing federal program—the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which says businesses of a certain size have to give unpaid leave of up to 12 weeks for employees who have certain medical or caregiving needs, including talking care of a newborn. Rubio now thinks it should be paid. But not paid by employers, but by tapping into Social Security.
This is always clever politics—proposing to give folks money. But critics—mostly Democrats and family advocacy groups—smell a trap. Their view: instead of jeopardizing future Social Security payments, why not leave them alone—and just cough up more to fund FMLA now? Ahh, here’s the rub: Congress, dominated (for now) by Republicans, doesn’t want to fund any new programs. It seems that lawmakers, all of a sudden, are concerned about deficits. Of course, they weren’t too worried last fall, when they passed a tax-cut bill that will—the Trump White House itself now acknowledges—push the federal deficit over $1 trillion next year. That red ink gets tacked on to the national debt itself, which is now projected to reach $33 trillion in nine years.
There are also fears that using Social Security for something other than Social Security could open a Pandora’s box: Why not allow it to be used for, say, college tuition? Or something else? Democrats, calling the FDR-era program sacrosanct, resist any effort to dilute it.
By the way, since we’re now living in an era of “government-by-tweet,” that’s how Rubio explains the merits of his idea. He claims his bill doesn’t expand government, doesn’t add new taxes, places no burden on businesses, doesn’t create a new entitlement program, but does help new parents stay in the workforce.
6 reasons to support our #PaidFamilyLeave bill:
1. Doesn’t expand government
2. Doesn’t add new taxes
3. Doesn’t place mandates on business
4. Doesn’t create a new entitlement
5. Doesn’t crowd out existing benefits
6. DOES help new parents stay in workforce https://t.co/D66hTk3Tbx
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) August 2, 2018
Note that I said Rubio’s critics are “mostly” Democrats and family advocacy groups. But even some prominent conservative voices are piling on. A scathing editorial in The Wall Street Journal (like MarketWatch, owned by News Corp. NWS, -0.88% ) calls much of the Florida senator’s idea “less believable than a presentation about time shares in Miami.” For example:
“He claims his benefit doesn’t expand government or create a new entitlement. But what is expanding government if not taking a benefit financed by private industry and administering it through a government program? Paid leave by definition entitles Americans to a benefit without even an imagined connection to old-age insurance.”
Then there is this: since Social Security’s trustees predict the program will be insolvent in 15 years, how can Rubio, or any politician, make any credible claim about what new parents today will get when they retire decades from now? That’s a question that Rubio—who at age 47, would become eligible for Social Security himself right when the program is due to be slashed—hasn’t answered. Given that he nearly retired from politics two years ago, it’s hard to see him sticking around until 2034—meaning that Mr. Rubio, like just about every other politician in this town, would leave that sticky problem for someone else to deal with.