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Romney Has Been Consistent on Social Security: Raise Retirement Age, Progressive Price Indexing

Mitt Romney explicitly called for an increase in the retirement age in a speech to the Detroit Econmic Club in February 2012, during his campaign for President. He also described “progressive price indexing,” another way to cut benefits. This was all a consistent part of Romney’s views on Social Security during the primary, and it belies President Obama’s claim in this week’s debate (or maybe it doesn’t) that the two candidates share “a somewhat similar position.”

Here’s what Romney said to the Detroit Economic Club, in a speech widely mocked for being held inside the empty football stadium where the Detroit Lions play:

A few commonsense reforms will ensure we make good on our promises to today’s seniors while saving Social Security and Medicare for future generations. Tax hikes are off the table, and there will be no change for those at or near retirement. But younger generations will enter a system strengthened for the 21st century.

When it comes to Social Security, we will slowly raise the retirement age. We will slow the growth in benefits for higher-income retirees […]

Starting in 2022, new retirees will participate in this new system. We will gradually increase the Medicare eligibility age by one month each year. In the long run, the eligibility ages for both programs will be indexed to longevity so that they increase only as fast as life expectancy.

With these commonsense changes, we will have fixed our balance sheet. Instead of $62 trillion in unfunded commitments hanging over America’s future, we’ll have a balance sheet that is actually in balance.

There are two elements to this, and they are remarkably consistent with Romney’s entire primary campaign. In fact, he made the same points in the speech in Iowa marred by him saying “corporations are people, my friends.” That speech was all about Social Security, and at the end of this clip, he explains exactly what he would do with Social Security. “In my view, the areas you have to consider are, higher income people receiving less rapid growth in their earned benefits, in their inflators… I think we should have what’s known as progressive indexing. I think we also should consider a higher retirement age.”

These two principles, raising the retirement age and progressive price indexing, are also right there on Romney’s issue page for Social Security.

So Romney has two ideas for Social Security: raising the retirement age, which is a benefit cut for everyone who begins to get their benefits later in life, and progressive price indexing. Some would call that “means testing,” but the problem for Romney and anyone who support this idea is that you have to take benefits away from people of very modest means in order for that to close the funding gap on Social Security in any real way.

Under the most common progressive price indexing proposal, benefits would be reduced by nearly 30 percent for those who earned medium wages (about $43,000 in 2010 dollars) and by as much as 50 percent for higher earners […]

In addition, these reductions get larger and larger over time, because the cost of living adjustments come on that lower income, reducing the fractional adjustments. This would also break the trust that workers get out what they pay into the system in a standard way, by indexing the benefit. Over time, Social Security would become more like a welfare program instead of a universal benefit, which could have strong impacts on public support.

Romney’s views on Social Security have been known for some time, then. He wants to cut benefits. He explicitly rejects increasing taxes of any kind to narrow the funding gap, including lifting the Social Security payroll tax cap from the current $110,000 in income. The President re-endorsed raising the payroll tax cap just last month.

So when Obama said that he and Romney have a “somewhat similar position” on Social Security, either we need to learn FAR more about Obama’s position or he just blew the question. Because Romney’s position on Social Security is crystal clear.

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David Dayen

David Dayen