- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 14, 2015

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie said Tuesday that Social Security benefits must be curtailed in order to preserve the program for future generations, wading into a tricky political issue at the heart of the debate over federal spending and debt.

Mr. Christie called for raising the retirement eligibility age for Social Security and means-testing benefits to reduce payments to wealthier seniors, putting him in line with some potential GOP presidential hopefuls and potentially pressuring still others who have been vague about their plans.

The move comes at a time when Social Security is heating up as a political issue, with liberal campaign groups saying rather than cuts, the program should be expanded — a call that’s likely to put pressure on newly minted Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton.

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“Today, we know this: our entitlement system is out of control. Its growth is not sustainable. And inaction threatens the economic health of every generation that will follow us,” Mr. Christie said in a speech at the St. Anselm College Institute of Politics in New Hampshire. “So let’s confront this problem head on. Let’s take the steps we can take today, and resolve to do even more tomorrow.”

Tackling Social Security has always been politically tough.

President George W. Bush vowed to do so during his 2004 campaign, though he didn’t lay out any specifics. After he won re-election he proposed adding private accounts to the system — only to see that call rejected by Democrats and many Republicans on Capitol Hill.

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Mr. Bush’s brother, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, is now one of a host of GOP White House hopefuls who are returning to the issue.

Jeb Bush says the entitlement system is unsustainable, and in an interview with NewsmaxTV in 2013 said that he is open to “raising the retirement age” and perhaps “means-testing the entitlement programs.”

Sens. Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz — the three major GOP hopefuls who have officially announced presidential campaigns — have stake out similar ground.

Mr. Cruz, in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity last month, said that Social Security “absolutely” should be means-tested and said “sure” when asked if he is open to raising the retirement age for younger workers.

But not everyone has gone that far yet.

Asked whether he supported Mr. Christie’s proposed changes to Social Security, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said, through a response from a spokesperson, that “for far too long, Washington has kicked the can down the road on entitlement programs.”

“Absent significant reforms, these programs will go bankrupt and the people who have paid into them will be left out in the cold,” Mr. Walker said. “We need a leader who will implement true reforms to save and protect these programs for future generations.”

The challenges to the system are clear.

Social Security takes in less in payroll taxes than it pays out in benefits every year, and is only making payments by drawing on its trust funds. The disability trust fund is expected to go bankrupt by next year, while the basic retirement trust fund has some more years to go.

Mr. Christie said that changes in life expectancy have increased the burden on Social Security and proposed gradually raising the retirement age to 69. He said early retired should be increased in a similar fashion to 64 from 62.

He also proposed a “modest means test that only affects those with non-Social Security income over $80,000 per year, and phases out Social Security payments entirely for those that have $200,000 a year of other income.”

“This would affect less than 2 percent of all recipients, but would contribute to the overall health of the system and recognize that the wealthiest among us don’t need this benefit when it comes at such great cost to our fiscal health and the opportunity to future generations,” Mr. Christie said.

Liberal groups panned Mr. Christie’s proposal.

“The political center has shifted heavily toward expanding Social Security benefits, not talking about cutting them,” said TJ Helmstetter, spokesperson for Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “Americans of all political stripes support expanding Social Security benefits. Chris Christie and any politician who suggests cutting Social Security — or raising the retirement age — is out-of-touch and will lose.”

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