U.S. Senate candidate Marco Rubio deserves credit for candidly confronting the challenge to keep Social Security solvent. The Miami Republican calls for raising the retirement age and says he's willing to consider recalculating cost of living adjustments. Those are the sorts of straight answers Floridians deserve from serious candidates.
Congress needs to face up to making changes to Social Security if current workers, let alone their children, are going to be able to count on a modest safety net in retirement. For the first time, Social Security will pay out more in benefits this year than it will receive in payroll taxes. While the program is not expected to run dry until 2037, the reality is there is no pot of money in a trust fund, and some payroll tax money has been spent on other needs. As Washington turns its attention to reducing the federal deficit, it will have to tackle Social Security benefits.
Rubio acknowledged the obvious in a debate two weeks ago when he said Social Security "cannot survive'' in its current form. Then the former state House speaker, who too often relies more on conservative platitudes than specific proposals, said he favors raising the retirement age for people younger than 55. That is a political calculation in part, because it means more than 2.4 million retirees who receive Social Security benefits — and vote regularly — would not be affected. But it also suggests Rubio may be more willing to make tough choices than his legislative record suggests.
Rubio is not the only Republican who is starting to talk specifics about ensuring the future of Social Security. U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin has called for gradually raising the age for full benefits to 70 by 2098. On Friday, Sen. George LeMieux, who is occupying the seat that Rubio hopes to win, also said it is time to consider raising the retirement age for Social Security benefits. Of course, neither Rubio nor LeMieux are embracing another sensible solution: Raising the $106,800 income limit for paying Social Security taxes. Any broad solution is likely to include a mix of tax increases and reductions in benefits.
Yet Rubio and LeMieux are being more realistic than Gov. Charlie Crist, Rubio's opponent in the Senate primary. Crist said during the debate he would rather reduce waste and fraud in Social Security than raise the retirement age. Waste and fraud have not been huge issues in Social Security, and Crist is avoiding the issue rather than addressing it head-on.
There will be plenty of time before the elections to press congressional candidates to take positions on overhauling Social Security. Rubio has demonstrated he is willing to offer a serious response to a serious issue. Now it's up to Crist and other candidates for federal office to match him.