Social Security, the Debt Ceiling and Partisan Politics

What impact does the debt ceiling have on Social Security? Social Security will have money to pay the check. Will the rest of the government will have the money to mail it?

Curse You John Boehner!

Late last night, the departing Speaker of the House announced a tentative deal aimed at heading off a government shutdown and debt crisis. While this agreement may be good for the country, the timing is inconvenient for me and my latest article on Social Security and the debt ceiling.

The article says that Social Security is the one function of government that is virtually exempt from the consequences of the debt ceiling. This piece is compelling when politicians are baiting seniors over their benefit checks. It becomes less interesting once seniors cease to worry about whether there is enough money in the coffers to cover the next round of benefit checks.

Where are partisan politics when you need them?

What is the debt ceiling?

The debt ceiling limits the amount of debt that the U.S. Treasury can issue. When the level of the government’s debt exceeds the legal limit, government spending is limited to the revenue collected by the government because it cannot borrow money.

Social Security is largely unaffected by this event because the system has layers of dedicated funding. The program has exclusive claims on payroll tax revenue. Beyond that line of funding, Social Security has a trust fund with more than $2.7 trillion in dedicated funding.

The mechanics of the Social Security program are poorly understood even by experts. Ed Lorenzen, a budget analyst at the Center for a Responsible Federal Budget, says it would be like a homeowner paying the mortgage but not all of his or her utility bills. Actually it would be like the utility expecting to invade the escrow account with the bank that holds the mortgage.

The debt held by the Social Security Trust Fund can be refinanced without increasing the total debt outstanding. The government has to issue bonds which will increase the debt outstanding. The proceeds are, however, used to pay down debt. The net impact on total outstanding debt is zero.

The last person to play the Social Security card in a debt ceiling debate was Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. He is of course the last person who should be playing this card because he happens to be managing trustee of the Social Security Trust Funds.

As such, it is his job to manage the resources of the trust fund to anticipate foreseeable events such as the debt ceiling crisis. In fact, he recently signed a letter to Congress assuring the public that the Social Security Trust Fund had sufficient resources to pay benefits for more than three years. So if there were any truth to his claim, he would be pleading the fifth rather than publically admitting to the largest breach of fiduciary responsibility in the history of mankind.

Let’s assume that the Treasury employees who process payroll taxes are sent home. No one collects payroll taxes. In that case, Social Security would draw on the resources of the Trust Fund. Let’s assume that Secretary Lew is completely remiss in his responsibilities, and has failed to build a cash reserve in the Trust Fund. The government can still pay the bills of Social Security because refinancing the debt held by Social Security has no impact on the overall national debt.

Life is Stranger than Fiction

Life is stranger than fiction. When Social Security has excess cash, the program is required to invest the money in government securities. Once the debt ceiling limits the government’s ability to borrow money, any excess cash would sit uninvested, while the rest of the government shuts down from lack of funding.

Social Security will have plenty of money to pay the check. The real question is whether the rest of the government will have the money to mail it.


About the Author

Brenton Smith (A.K.A. Joe The Economist) writes nationally on the issue of Social Security reform with work appearing in Forbes,, MarketWatch,, and regional media like The Denver Post.