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Social Security “Lockbox” Approved By House

Legislation (H.R. 2) designed to protect the Social Security and Medicare programs was approved, 407-2, by the House on February 13. Four Members voted present.

Sponsored by Rep. Wally Herger (R-CA), the “lockbox” bill would bar Congress from considering any measures or amendments that would reduce the portion of the budget surplus generated by the Social Security program. The bill also would prohibit consideration of any measure that would reduce the amount allocated for the Medicare hospital insurance trust fund for that fiscal year. However, H.R. 2 would waive the point of order for Social Security reform proposals defined in the bill as those intended “to save Social Security.”

The Congressional Budget Office has predicted an overall budget surplus of $5.6 trillion over the next ten years, with $2.9 trillion of that amount provided by the Social Security and Medicare trust funds.

During floor debate, strong support for the bill’s intent was evident. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) stated, “We must pass this bill to ensure that our current and future seniors are provided the benefits they worked so hard to earn.” She added that the Social Security program “is particularly beneficial to women, who receive 54 percent of Social Security retirement and survivor benefits. In 1997, Social Security benefits lowered the number of women living below the poverty line from 9.8 million to 2.7 million.”

Some Democrats voiced concern about the bill’s potential effectiveness. Indicating her intention to vote for the bill, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) said, “I am nonetheless concerned about some of the provisions in this bill. It is my belief that these provisions make this lockbox legislation less than iron-clad.” Under H.R. 2, she said, “once we pass any legislation that constitutes Social Security or Medicare reform…we are free to use Social Security and Medicare trust fund money for whatever we choose.”

Commenting on this concern, Rep. Herger said, “This measure ensures that trust fund surpluses can only be spent on providing retirement and health security, such as reforming Medicare to provide a prescription benefit or reforming Social Security to provide more options to younger taxpayers.” He added, “Before we engage in debate on even a single issue dealing with the federal budget, we are here to put the protection of Social Security and Medicare first.”

Twice during the 106th Congress, the House approved versions of Social Security lockbox legislation—as a stand-alone measure (see The Source, 5/28/99, p. 2) and as part of a broader package (see The Source, 9/22/00, p. 4). However, the Senate failed five times during the 106th Congress to invoke cloture and move to a vote on similar language (see The Source, 7/16/99, p. 2).

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