SSDI likely to be center stage in 2016 presidential election race

Photo of Social Security Administration sign.
Social Security Looms Large in Presidential Race

The 2016 presidential race may be in its early stages, but Social Security is already front and center, with proposals to reform the Social Security Disability Insurance system likely to increase in prominence.

The SSDI provides monthly benefits to nearly 11 million people nationwide. The system’s trust fund is set to run out in 2016, meaning the Social Security Administration will either have to reduce the size of benefits, or seek additional funding through taxes or some other sources. Cuts to benefits could be as large as 20 percent.

To prevent similar shortfalls in the past, the government has reallocated funds between the budgets for SSDI and Social Security Old Age and Survivors Insurance, the SSA’s far larger program for retirees.

This issue came to the forefront in January 2015, when the House of Representatives, on a near party line vote supported by the Republicans, voted to bar the SSA from reallocating funds between the programs. Although President Obama would almost surely veto a similar measure if approved by the Senate, the bill prompted a backlash from disability advocates (PDF format).

At this point, the battle is between candidates seeking to expand and cut SSDI benefits. In the center is Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, who has been largely mum on the subject of SSDI. In regard to the larger Social Security system, Clinton has ruled out major cuts, but in the 2008 race opposed a plan by then-candidate Barack Obama to increase Social Security revenue by raising the cap on the payroll that funds the program.

To the left of Clinton is Senator Bernie Sanders, who has made Social Security expansion central to his platform. Earlier this year, Senator Sanders blasted the House’s vote to restrict reallocations of Social Security spending. He also accused some Senators of attempting to drive a wedge between seniors and people with disabilities by contending that reallocation would hurt seniors.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has also called for expanding Social Security, but has not said much in regard to SSDI.

Among the Republican candidates, almost all are for such measures as expanding the retirement age and reducing benefits for wealthier seniors, but specifics as to SSDI have been minimal.

Senator Marco Rubio has proposed an array of specific proposals for Social Security, but has not said much in regard to SSDI.

Similarly, Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul been short on specifics, though Paul recently caused a controversy when he was caught on TV saying that “over half of the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts.”

All three senators voted in favor of the bill to restrict transfers between Social Security programs in January.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has so far released the most specific proposal for reforming Social Security (PDF format). In regard to SSDI, his recommendations focused on finding ways to encourage SSDI-eligible individuals to remain in the workforce, such as by offering tax breaks for employers and expanding employer-provided rehabilitation plans.