Saving Social Security Shouldn’t Be Political Kryptonite

Ronald Reagan And Tip O’Neill Showed Us How

During my first term in the U.S. Senate, Congress and the White House tackled what then-House Speaker Tip O’Neill had dubbed the third rail of politics: Social Security. That’s because those who spoke up about Social Security’s finances invariably learned the topic was political kryptonite.

But President Ronald Reagan and Speaker O’Neill changed the narrative. By working together in good faith and across the aisle to save Social Security from insolvency, they showed Washington can solve problems on behalf of the American people. A bipartisan commission hammered out proposals that put everything on the table, with one important caveat: the outcome wouldn’t change benefits for those in or nearing retirement. It gave plenty of runway for people to factor Social Security modifications into their retirement planning. That caveat must be upheld for proposals in the future. Current beneficiaries and near retirees would not have their benefits cut.

When FDR signed the Social Security Act into law in 1935, he wove the anti-poverty program for older Americans and survivors into the social fabric of America. Benefits for individuals with disabilities and their dependents were added in 1956. Today, more than 70 million Americans receive monthly Social Security benefits.

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and Trustees of Social Security have crunched the numbers and found if no changes are made, Social Security will only be able to pay roughly 75 cents on the dollar within the next decade. According to the 2023 annual Trustees report, the reserves will be depleted by 2033, leaving insufficient funds for full benefits.

As I said last July at a Senate Budget Committee hearing, “doing nothing means cuts for everyone.”  The longer Washington kicks the can down the road, the tougher it will be to secure solvency.

The American people deserve another Reagan-O’Neill moment. It’s been four decades since their historic agreement set fearmongering aside for the greater good. Social Security is perched on a fiscal cliff.  We owe it to the next generation to save it.

Unless members of Congress and the president stand shoulder-to-shoulder to right our fiscal ship, Social Security could become a raw deal for Millennials, Gen Zers and those that follow.

I know it’s a steep hill to climb. Nineteen years ago this month, as then-chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I applauded President George W. Bush for his leadership to strengthen Social Security.

When I chaired the Special Committee on Aging and held the gavel of the Senate Finance Committee, I worked to build consensus on proposals to save Social Security. I invited Republicans and Democrats to roll up our sleeves to address the biggest demographic shift in American history with the retirement of the baby boom generation. I suggested members of Congress ask if they care more about the next election or the next generation.

In his 2005 State of the Union address, Bush implored lawmakers to fix Social Security for existing beneficiaries and “make the system a better deal for younger workers” who could build a nest egg that could be passed on to their kids and grandkids. His gutsy effort ended up in the dustbin of history.

Here we are, two decades later, and presidential candidates use Social Security to score political points instead of coming clean with the American people: doing nothing means everyone gets less. As the population ages, fewer workers are paying taxes to support the number of beneficiaries receiving monthly payments. The writing is on the wall.

When Reagan signed the legislative lifeline to save Social Security in 1983, the worker-to-beneficiary ratio was 3.1 to 1. In 2023, it was 2.7 to 1. In 20 years, it shrinks to 2.3 to 1. Without reforms, Social Security is heading towards financial insolvency.

Washington ought to learn from history. 

At the bill’s signing on April 20, 1983, President Reagan affirmed the nation’s “ironclad” commitment to Social Security and lauded how “an issue that once divided and frightened so many people now unite[s] us.” Speaker O’Neill said by working together “on both sides of the aisle, it shows the system does work.”

At the historic signing ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House, then-Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker spoke about one of the “most important aspects of the civility of American Government.” That is, the ability to “rise above politics” and "address, on a bipartisan basis, the great challenges and issues that confront the Republic.”

At my annual 99 county meetings, Iowans often ask me about partisan gridlock that throws sand in the gears of the people’s business. Iowans and this U.S. Senator agree, political leaders must work together to advance the greater good.

That’s why I work tirelessly to build bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill and facilitate dialogue with constituents. We can’t allow partisan kryptonite to poison what’s good for America. That includes saving Social Security. 


By:  U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley