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The coming Social Security fight could be 1983 all over again

What a successful Reagan-era reform effort — and two failed ones since — says about how a looming insolvency crisis might play out.

Political pressure will almost surely force Washington to shore up the Social Security program before the social safety net program faces reduced monthly checks as soon as 2033.

But the question is when.

Will lawmakers mobilize in the next few years, or will they wait until the proverbial last minute — and pay increased costs because of that delay — before finding a compromise?

The bad news for recipients is that recent history, not to mention rhetoric on the 2024 campaign trail, suggests that procrastination may win out.

Washington has made two runs at reform in recent years — one under George W. Bush and another under Barack Obama — but both came up short. That's led some to look further back for lessons about how this coming standoff could play out.

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Perhaps the most apt historical comparison is what happened in 1983. That was the last time lawmakers successfully implemented large-scale reforms to stave off insolvency in the program. What's also notable about that Reagan-era deal is that it barely came together in time.

Reduced checks were looming in July of that year. The pact was signed into law in April.

(Original Caption) In a ceremony on the South Lawn, President Reagan signs a $165 billion bill, to save Social Security from financial collapse. Behind Reagan is (L-R), Senator Robert Dole, (R.-Kans.), Rep. Claude Pepper, (D-Fla.), Rep. Robert Michel, (R-Ill.), House Speaker Thomas
In a ceremony on the South Lawn, President Reagan signs a bill to avert Social Security insolvency in 1983. Looking on are a range of figures, including Alan Greenspan, far left, Senator Robert Dole, third from left, and House Speaker Tip O'Neill, standing to Reagan's left. (Getty Images) (Bettmann via Getty Images)

"'83 was a crisis," noted Bipartisan Policy Center chief economist Jason Fichtner, suggesting that perhaps a lesson from the episode is that "it seems to take a crisis" before anything gets done.

Fichtner formerly worked at the Social Security Administration and also on Capitol Hill. He is now trying to prod lawmakers to act, noting that delayed action does more than increase worry among program participants. It also makes it harder to solve the problem.

Washington's delays have already removed what Fichtner calls "one-and-done options," with a steeper challenge remaining.

"I start seeing this now as a jigsaw puzzle," he said, with multiple tough pills likely to be needed as part of any eventual solution.

A 2023 Brookings analysis pegged the changes required to right the system over the coming decades as already "at least double" what lawmakers faced in 1983.

And a recent Social Security trustees report also underlined the unforgiving math in the years ahead.

By 2033, Social Security may only be able to pay out 79% of benefits to seniors unless lawmakers act. Lawmakers may be able to use a maneuver and delay things until 2035, but there are few options after that beyond reforms.

Read more: Retirement planning: A step-by-step guide

The US was in a similar position roughly 40 years ago. Like now, many in Washington in the late 1970s and early 80s saw the problem of insolvency coming in advance.

It was prominent in the 1980 campaign. Then, after Ronald Reagan took office, the issue was squarely on the desk of his chief of staff, James Baker.

WASHINGTON, DC -- CIRCA 1981: President Ronald Reagan (L) and his Chief of Staff, James Baker, ride in the presidential limousine in 1981, in Washington, DC. (Photo by David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images)
President Ronald Reagan, left, and his Chief of Staff James Baker ride in the presidential limousine in 1981. (David Hume Kennerly/Getty Images) (David Hume Kennerly via Getty Images)

A recent biography of Baker unearthed how in 1981, even with insolvency just a few years away, the first order of business was another round of brinkmanship.

The key early move — as recounted by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser in their biography of "The Man Who Ran Washington" — was a White House plan from David Stockman, Reagan's budget director.

Stockman proposed making the program solvent through the GOP preferred method of cuts, identifying reductions of $100 billion. It would have slashed benefits significantly.

"That quickly flopped," Baker and Glasser wrote, as Democrats attacked the plan and even Republicans soon abandoned Reagan on this issue.

It was only then, in December 1981, when Reagan created a National Commission on Social Security Reform. Alan Greenspan, who later in the decade became chairman of the Federal Reserve, was chosen to head it.

The group was tasked with studying the issue for a year, conveniently putting the topic on the back burner until after the 1982 elections.

(Original Caption) Washington: Social Security Commission Chairman Alan Greenspan (L) shakes hands with Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, as Senate Finance Chairman Robert (R-Kans.,) looks on prior to a hearing on Social Security's needs. In background Sen. John Danforth, R-Mos.
Social Security Commission Chairman Alan Greenspan, left, shakes hands with Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa as Senate Finance Chairman Robert Dole looks on prior to a hearing on Social Security's needs. (Getty Images) (Bettmann via Getty Images)

By 1983 the issue was unavoidable. The Greenspan Commission finished its work — with many final negotiations taking place at Baker's house — and produced a plan that passed Congress and Reagan signed into law on April 20, 1983.

The legislation reshaped the program and staved off insolvency by increasing the payroll tax rate, subjecting benefits to income taxes, and gradually increasing the retirement age.

Read more: What is the retirement age for Social Security, 401(k), and IRA withdrawals?

Joe Biden was also involved in the debate as a young Delaware Senator and helped pass the package.

Biden discussed the experience in a 2007 NBC appearance in which he recounted what Kansas Senator Robert Dole told lawmakers after they reached an agreement on the politically explosive issue of gradually raising the retirement age.

Dole urged the negotiators that when opponents "attack us on this point, we'll all stay together," likening it to stepping into a wobbly boat.

"That's the kind of leadership that is needed," Biden added at the time.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., holds a Capitol Hill news conference in Washington, March 30, 1983, speaking on behalf of 15 senators who have written President Reagan urging reduction in the number of short-range NATO nuclear weapons in Europe. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds)
Then-Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware holds a news conference in Washington in 1983. (AP Photo/Ron Edmonds) (AP)

The question is whether that kind of leadership is present now from either Biden or Trump.

Biden spent decades entertaining ideas that critics call benefit cuts — from raising the retirement age to means testing — but he has notably taken them off the table in 2024. Trump, meanwhile, briefly floated — before backing away from — the idea of entitlement program "cutting."

In any case, both 2024 candidates are now in lockstep that any benefit cuts are off the table. It's a fact that leads figures like Jason Fichtner to be skeptical of any immediate-term prospects for wide-ranging negotiations needed to tackle the problem.

He said he was once cautiously optimistic that Biden might tackle the problem, but now the president may be "just another politician who kicks the can down the road. And President Trump is doing the exact same thing."

The bottom line, he said, is that it's possible "we're five years away at least from having a conversation."

Washington has also tried to reform the program twice in more recent history but came up short both times.

George W. Bush made the "partial privatization" of the program a top priority in 2005.

It ran into a wall of opposition, with Democrats opposed from the beginning and Republicans eventually backing away. Many pushed back at the concept of retirement benefits being subject to the whims of the stock market and also noted the idea might not help the looming insolvency.

That unsuccessful effort came up at a recent Social Security symposium in Washington.

Andrew Biggs, who saw the effort up close as he worked on Bush's National Economic Council, reflected that "one of the lessons from the Bush reforms, which you can now see, is that you don't get these chances very often."

TOPSHOT - US President George W. Bush arrives to speak at a roundtable discusion on Social Security reform in Galveston, Texas, 26 April, 2005. Bush's popularity has reached its lowest point since August, with 64 percent of Americans disapproving his handling of Social Security and only 40 percent approving his work on the economy, according to the ABC News/Washington Post poll. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP) (Photo by JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images)
President George W. Bush arrives at a roundtable discussion of Social Security Texas in 2005. (JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images) (JIM WATSON via Getty Images)

Washington tried again in 2011 during the Obama-era negotiations for a "grand bargain" to reset the nation's fiscal path.

Biden, then vice president, was center stage as the administration's point person in talks with then-House Speaker John Boehner.

That effort also fell short — largely because of GOP opposition to tax increases — but not before Biden and the Democratic side of the table put possible benefit cuts in the form of smaller cost-of-living adjustments on the table.

And as recently as a 2018 event, Biden appeared open to a mix of solutions to shore up the program: increased taxes as well as benefit cuts.

In brief comments that year at the Brookings Institution that largely focused on tax increases, Biden seemed to invoke the ideas of means testing — decreasing benefits for the wealthy to save money — by telling the audience: "I don't know a whole lot of people in the top one-tenth of 1 percent or the top 1 percent who are relying on Social Security when they retire."

But now, just a few years later, Biden says benefits cuts are a nonstarter. And he's proven eager to pressure Republicans on the issue, charging nearly every week that Republicans will slash the program as the 2024 campaign has heated up.

TAMPA, FLORIDA, UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 9: President Joe Biden discusses his plan to protect and strengthen Social Security and Medicare and lower healthcare costs at the University of Florida on February 9, 2023 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
President Joe Biden discusses Social Security and Medicare in Tampa, Florida in 2023. (Paul Hennessy/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images) (Anadolu via Getty Images)

At the end of the day, the worry among many is that political divides are too deep at the moment, even as some figures on Capitol Hill push for action sooner.

As for what savers should do in the meantime, Biggs had some advice during a recent Yahoo Finance Live appearance.

"If I were somebody saving for retirement, and I am, I would save a little bit more today," he said, "because you don't know exactly how the government is going to resolve that funding gap 10 years from now."

Ben Werschkul is Washington correspondent for Yahoo Finance.

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