July 5, 2005

July 5, 2005 | Commentary on

Stop Spending the Surplus

It's long past time for Congress to return the budget surplus to taxpayers.

Wait a minute. Surplus? For years now, we've heard about "deficits as far as the eye can see." But the feds are still running one important surplus, which Congress continues to squander. It's the Social Security surplus.

The Social Security trust fund started running a surplus back in 1983, when lawmakers decided to "save" the retirement program by boosting taxes. The extra money collected would supposedly pile up in the Social Security trust fund. Lawmakers assured us this money would keep the program solvent for decades to come.

But the sad reality is that there's no money in this trust fund. Congress spends the surplus on other projects (an indoor rain forest in Iowa, a heated bus stop in Alaska … you get the picture) and gives Social Security an IOU. Eventually that IOU will have to be repaid with tax money collected from our children and grandchildren.

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Rep. Jim McCrery, R-La., recently drafted legislation to stop Congress from dipping into the Social Security till. Their plan would use all Social Security taxes that aren't spent to pay current benefits to fund individual retirement accounts that workers would own and control.

In its first year, this plan would reserve about $80 billion in excess Social Security tax revenues to pay future benefits.  The surplus would be converted into negotiable government bonds and credited to personal accounts controlled by workers -- real assets similar to an IRA or a 401(k). Not only does this approach assure workers that their retirement taxes will be spent on their retirement, it allows them to watch their retirement fund grow over the years.

Critics say we can't afford to do this, because it would make today's deficit much larger. But this isn't true. The actual levels of government spending and government borrowing would remain the same. What would change is how they're reported. Instead of raiding the trust fund and hiding tens of billions' worth of general fund borrowing, lawmakers would have to admit just how much of our money they're actually spending.

This seems only fair. Remember Sarbanes-Oxley? Congress passed that law in 2002 to demand that American businesses use open accounting practices. Meanwhile, lawmakers have been content to continue engaging in their own accounting sleight-of-hand.

Well, the DeMint-McCrery plan would be a big step toward making lawmakers play by the same accounting rules they impose on businesses and American families. That's better for everybody in the long run.

This proposal also makes a lot of sense for the individual taxpayer. The Social Security Administration estimates that, over the next 12 years, taxpayers who choose to start an investment account (they would be voluntary under the DeMint plan) would pile up, on average, about $5,500 each. That's not enough to retire on, but it's a start. And because these accounts would be invested in Treasury bonds, that money would continue to grow, earning interest long after new contributions stop in 2017.

Plus, taxpayers will be glad to know that the money the government is taking from them in Social Security taxes (FICA on your paycheck stub) is actually going to fund their own retirement, not some new government program.

The DeMint proposal is a good start -- but it's just that. Congress needs to provide still more truth in advertising and admit that unless it summons the political will to overhaul Social Security, there's no way the system will be able to pay all the benefits it has promised to deliver.

Bringing benefits in line with resources won't be painless.  Congress will have to at least consider pushing back the age at which people may start collecting full Social Security benefits.  And lawmakers should take a good look at indexing benefits, so that the safety net program directs proportionately more support to the neediest retirees, and proportionately less to the wealthiest.

These and other potential reforms will be controversial.  But everyone can agree that Social Security taxes ought to be used to fund Social Security benefits. The DeMint plan makes sense, because it's a big step in that direction.

Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office