CRS: Social Security: What Would Happen If the Trust Funds Ran Out?

Very interesting paper that I missed in real time.

Social Security: What Would Happen If the Trust Funds Ran Out?

Almost everyone who addresses this question assumes that the answer is pretty simple: if either of the Social Security Trust Funds goes to zero than benefits will automatically drop from ‘Scheduled’ to ‘Payable’ which translates to a 22-25% overnight cut depending on which Trust Fund we are talking about. But I had an interesting conversation with Andrew Biggs some years back. Andrew is a very prominent advocate of Social Security ‘reform’ which he sells on the basis that the system is ‘unsustainable’. As such he and I and Coberly and he have had some vigorous debates over the years, and mostly he is firmly in the ‘bad guy’ category on policy. For all that he is a nice guy and really, really knows the numbers and laws in play. Not least because he spent some time as the Principal Deputy Commissioner of Social Security (the no. 2) during the Bush Administration.

With that as background Biggs told me that the situation at Trust Fund Depletion was not as clear-cut as almost everyone assumed and had been the topic of some high end discussion at SSA. And their conclusion as related by Biggs to me mirrored that of the Congressional Research Service in this Report from last year.

The Social Security Trustees project that, under their intermediate assumptions and under current law, the Disability Insurance (DI) trust fund will become exhausted in 2016 and the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) trust fund will become exhausted in 2034. Although the two funds are legally separate, they are often considered in combination. The trustees project that the combined Social Security trust funds will become exhausted in 2033. At that point, revenue would be sufficient to pay only about 77% of scheduled benefits.

If a trust fund became exhausted, there would be a conflict between two federal laws. Under the Social Security Act, beneficiaries would still be legally entitled to their full scheduled benefits. But the Antideficiency Act prohibits government spending in excess of available funds, so the
Social Security Administration (SSA) would not have legal authority to pay full Social Security benefits on time.

It is unclear what specific actions SSA would take if a trust fund were exhausted. After insolvency, Social Security would continue to receive tax income, from which a majority of scheduled benefits could be paid. One option would be to pay full benefit checks on a delayed schedule;  another would be to make timely but reduced payments. Social Security beneficiaries would remain legally entitled to full, timely benefits and could take legal action to claim the balance of their benefits.

The Report proceeds to outline the possible responses and is interesting for that alone. More important for my purposes though is the suggestion that the “conflict between two federal laws” precludes the option of Congress just sitting back and letting “automatic” cuts happen. Because as Biggs some years back and CRS last year point out, there is nothing automatic about this at all.

Anyway something to talk about for those of us jonesing over the release of the 2015 Social Security Report. Which my fellow junkies is scheduled for tomorrow (Wednesday) probably at 1PM Eastern. If past file name practices are observed the web version should be available via URL:

while a PDF version should be viewable or downloadable at:

I should have another post up with these same links prior to Report Release. But anyone who wants to bookmark the URLs and try to get a jump on just about everyone else in the country should feel free.