Failing to Lift Debt Limit Would Be “Disastrous” For Social Security and Medicare

Failing to Lift Debt Limit Would Be “Disastrous” For Social Security and Medicare

The federal government shutdown that occurred from midnight December 22, 2018, until January 25, 2019, was the longest in U.S. history.  It was so disruptive that an analysis from Standard and Poor’s (S & P) estimated that the shut down cost the U.S. economy $3.6 billion.  While the government shutdown was terrible for all affected, failing to raise the U.S. debt limit, also called the debt ceiling, could make the recent shut down look like a tea party.

“Failing to raise the U.S. debt ceiling could be disastrous,” warns The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a group made up of leading U.S. economists, retired economic policy experts, and former Members of Congress concerned about reducing federal debt.  If Congress fails to lift or suspend the debt limit in time, the inflow of Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes won’t be sufficient to cover daily obligations.  That could mean the U.S. Treasury could default on Social Security payments as well as payments to Medicare health plans.

The U.S. has already hit the most recent debt limit on March 2nd, just one month after the government shutdown ended.  The U.S. Treasury is currently using “extraordinary measures” to temporarily keep the federal government funded, but the Congressional Budget Office estimates that the Treasury will run out of cash near the end of the fiscal year (September 30, 2019) unless Congress takes action.

A government shutdown occurs when Congress fails to pass the appropriations bills that allow agencies to operate.  As a result, federal workers and government contractors temporarily don’t get paid until after the shutdown has ended.  But hitting the debt limit would have far more reaching effects.  The debt limit is the legal limit on the total amount of debt the federal government may take on.  That limit is especially important to older Americans because the federal government has used trillions in excess payroll tax revenues from the Social Security and Medicare Trust Funds in the past, and now must borrow in order to pay Social Security and Medicare benefits in full and on time.

Although Congress has often enacted “clean bill” debt limit increases, and may do so again, lawmakers have also paid for increases with other types of changes, including changes to Social Security and Medicare.  In a 2015 debt limit deal, Congress ended a benefit claiming option that was one of the few ways married couples could maximize their benefits.  The change affected some people who were already 62 and entitled to benefits.  It cost those affected, thousands in Social Security income that they were depending on getting.

In order to keep Social Security checks coming, in full and on time, Congress will need to work promptly to raise or suspend the debt limit in coming months.  Failing to do so would be irresponsible, especially when more than 60 million Americans rely on Social Security and Medicare.  TSCL believes that Congress has better options than benefit cuts for strengthening Social Security.  What do you think?  Please take our new online 2019 Social Security survey here.