Continental Divides

Trusting Politicians with Our Money

Who better to debrief during my working visit to the nation’s capital than Max Richtman, who knows Montana and its people like the back of his hand

By John McCaslin

Floating in the same boat as Flathead Valley residents who rely heavily on hard-earned Social Security checks, who better to debrief during my working visit to the nation’s capital than Max Richtman, who knows Montana and its people like the back of his hand.

Prior to becoming president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, Max for 10 years worked for Montana Sen. John Melcher, first as staff director and counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs, before appointed chief of staff of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, both chaired by the late senator.

It so happened Max and I broke bread the night before President Joe Biden signed the much-ballyhooed bipartisan bill to suspend the nation’s debt limit, a kick-the-can-down-the-road compromise the president and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy hammered out “to avert imminent economic catastrophe.”

Like countless times in the past — “We always do this [expletive] dance,” Montana Sen. Jon Tester once famously grumbled — Max paid particular attention to the suspenseful negotiations, given there are no guarantees that Social Security and Medicare will be completely preserved.

While pleased that the Biden-McCarthy “Fiscal Responsibility Act” won’t disrupt Social Security and Medicare benefit payments through 2024, Max expressed concern that its spending caps will impact the operating budget of the “chronically underfunded” Social Security Administration, which struggles enormously with customer service.

It’s so bad, Max pointed out, that thousands of American workers have “passed away” while awaiting adjudication of their Social Security Disability Insurance claims.

Instead of capping spending, Max is urging top congressional “appropriators” — among them Montana Rep. Ryan Zinke, who sits on the influential House Appropriations Committee — to “prioritize” the SSA through future legislation.

As he made clear, Social Security has little impact on the federal debt (it’s funded almost entirely from payroll contributions), so what’s there to lose except your and my savings entrusted with the U.S. government?

Right now, 253,030 Montanans are beneficiaries of Social Security, officially called “Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance.” They include 194,144 retired workers, 23,922 disabled workers, 13,495 widow(er)s and parents, 6,342 spouses, and 13,127 children.

Another 16,365 Montanans receive federally administered Supplemental Security Income, the cash assistance program providing monthly payments to 136 blind, 14,728 disabled, and 1,501 aged across the state.

As Max wrote to lawmakers, members of the national committee consist of Democrats and Republicans alike, united in “protecting and strengthening Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and the other programs that are so vitally important to older Americans.

“With 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day — and the number of seniors projected to double by 2050 — the National Committee hopes that the decisions you make about funding priorities are mindful of the need to safeguard our older Americans now and into the future.”

With the debt ceiling sufficiently raised for now, parleying is underway to fund the U.S. government through fiscal 2024. President Biden has already presented his budget proposal to Congress, and as usual it was declared it dead on arrival.

Still, for the beleaguered SSA, the president is asking for a 10 percent increase ($1.4 billion) over 2023’s enacted level to improve the aforementioned customer experience by upgrading staff and technology (Max’s fingerprints seem to be all over this).

Just as important, the $6.9 trillion blueprint targets those high-income Americans who exploit tax loopholes and pay less than their share into the Social Security system, which impacts the rest of us (the Medicare portion of the president’s measure similarly zeroes in on the tax code to prevent people from skirting otherwise mandatory withholdings).

Speaking of which, the 2023 annual report of the Social Security Board of Trustees shows that the surplus in trust funds that disburse Social Security benefits will be depleted by 2034, one year earlier than projected in last year’s report. When benefit payments outstrip income, Social Security would pay about 80 percent of the money we are entitled.

And that is unacceptable.

John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.

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