President’s Fiscal Commission Is Making The Case For Backdoor COLA Cuts

President’s Fiscal Commission Is Making The Case For Backdoor COLA Cuts

By Mary Johnson

Your cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) “overpays” you. Yes, that is an outrageous statement — especially since you haven’t gotten a COLA boost for two years. Nevertheless, calling it “The Moment of Truth Project,” that’s what the President’s Fiscal Commission is saying in making the case for the government to switch to a more slowly- growing “chained” Consumer Price Index (CPI).

“Chaining” the CPI would be a deficit reduction double-hitter. The CPI is used to calculate COLAs, a host of other federal retirement benefits (like military) and federal income tax exemptions, deductions and tax brackets. Thus, switching to a more slowly growing measure would dramatically cut government spending on the annual boosts for Social Security and a host of other federal benefit programs, in addition to quietly raising everyone’s taxes.

The report’s release coincided with two days of high-level White House negotiations that President Obama recently held with Senate Democratic and Republican leaders over reducing the federal deficit, ahead of the pressing debt limit deadline. The attractiveness of the proposal is not only the aforementioned enormous savings to the federal government, but the ingenious political cover. The change appears miniscule, the savings to the government low at first, and it’s so complicated nobody except a government economist would even claim to understand it.
Said the report:

“Addressing our fiscal challenges will require many tough choices and policy changes—but switching to the chained CPI represents neither. Such a change offers policy makers the rare opportunity to achieve significant savings spread across the entire budget by making a technical improvement to existing policies. As such, across-the-board adoption of the chained CPI should be at the top of the list for any deficit reduction plan or down payment.”

The savings compound over time and are huge. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that chaining the CPI would cut COLAs by $112 billion from 2012 - 2021 alone and, if used in other federal retirement programs and for indexing taxes, would reduce deficits by about $300 billion over the next decade.

The proposal is not new. Former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan supported a similar proposal in the late 1990s. In fact, it’s one of a series of technical changes to the CPI recommended by the Boskin Commission in 1996 — which said that the CPI overstates inflation and that the COLA overpays seniors by about 1.1%. The Bureau of Labor Statistics busily instituted a number of those changes from 1995 through 2000 that, by my estimates, have already cut the rate of growth in the CPI and average Social Security benefits, compared to previous CPI measurement methodology by about $525 annually over the past ten years. If Congress were to adopt the chained CPI to calculate COLA starting with the COLA payable in 2012, that would additionally cut the growth in average benefits by about $2,429 over the next ten years.

The Moment of Truth Project report calls it a technical correction and argues that government would simply be making the CPI more accurate. But if that’s true, why haven’t the economists at the BLS gone ahead and changed it already? They can’t. The reality is that it requires a legislative change. It’s not simply a matter for BLS economists. It’s a matter for Congress —the same lawmakers who are answerable to you and me.

TSCL is gearing up to fight legislation that would cut the current rate of COLA growth any further. To the contrary seniors need a COLA that more adequately protects the buying power of Social Security, and TSCL supports H.R. 776, the Guaranteed 3% COLA Act, introduced by Representative Eliot Engel (NY-17). Why not take a few minutes now to send your Representative an email explaining how you need a Social Security COLA you can rely on? Be sure to ask your Representative to co-sponsor H.R. 776, the Guaranteed 3% COLA Act.

Sources: “Measuring Up: The Case for the Chained CPI,” Rosenberg, Goldwein, Moment of Truth Project, May 11, 2011. “Changes in Calculating the Consumer Price Indexes,” Congressional Budget Office, September 1997.