By Benjamin Lanka
Ohio voters will have a clear choice for senator on Nov. 8. Incumbent Rob Portman, 60, a Republican, and challenger Ted Strickland, 75, a former Democratic governor, offer different approaches on what should be done with Social Security and Medicare.
Social Security will be a key issue for Congress, because unless it acts, the program will be able to pay only about 75 percent of promised benefits after 2034.
AARP’s Take a Stand campaign is pressing presidential and congressional candidates to make the issue a priority. To find out where candidates stand on Social Security, go to 2016takeastand.org.
President Barack Obama recently said Congress should make Social Security “more generous” and increase its benefits, although he did not propose specifics.
The Ohio Senate candidates’ positions came from their campaigns’ emailed responses to questions posed by the Bulletin.
Portman said the president’s call would “enlarge the program’s deficits, speed up the program’s bankruptcy and, thus, guarantee painful cuts.” But he added that he would like to see minimum benefits raised for low-income beneficiaries as part of reform.
Strickland is broadly supportive of efforts to boost and strengthen Social Security, but he doesn’t have specifics about his plan yet, said campaign manager David Bergstein.
Strickland believes that Social Security must be strengthened with “commonsense change” but without raising the retirement age, Bergstein said. “Ted will always oppose efforts to increase the retirement age, cut benefits and privatize Social Security.”
Raise income cap?
Instead, Strickland said the country must ensure that wealthy people are paying their fair share to strengthen the program, but did not offer specifics on how that should happen. The Social Security tax currently applies to only the first $118,500 in annual wages. An estimate by AARP showed eliminating that cap would fill 71 percent of the program’s funding gap.
Portman said eliminating the income cap would essentially result in a massive tax increase and would bring the marginal tax rate to 65 percent for some. He would propose modestly trimming the growth of the Social Security benefits for upper-income taxpayers. Portman also said he would oppose privatizing Social Security.
He has previously supported adjusting retirement ages for Social Security and Medicare, as well as means-testing—or reducing— benefits for upper-income retirees.
“I believe that if we act on a bipartisan basis soon, Social Security’s bankruptcy can be avoided by gradually phasing in benefit reforms for those who can afford it and have not retired while protecting current seniors and anyone with a low income,” Portman said.
Medicare is also expected to deplete its trust fund in 2028. Strickland supports allowing the Medicare program to negotiate prescription drug prices, which some researchers have estimated could save $15 billion annually. Bergstein said that Strickland is open to innovative ways to help the program and that price negotiation is a good first step.
Portman said income tests can help solve Medicare’s insolvency problem. He noted that a bill passed in 2015 will—over time—require higher-income Medicare recipients to pay a little more for their premiums. He also opposes replacing Medicare with a voucher program.
“I am willing to look at a number of possible solutions as part of a bipartisan approach,” Portman said.
Benjamin Lanka is a writer living in Westerville, Ohio.