Buried in new rules that will govern the House for the next two years is a provision that could force an explosive battle over Social Security's finances on the eve of the 2016 presidential election.
Social Security's disability program has been swamped by aging baby boomers, and unless Congress acts, the trust fund that supports it is projected to run dry in late 2016. At that point, the program will collect only enough payroll taxes to pay 81 percent of benefits, according to the trustees who oversee Social Security.
To shore up the disability program, Congress could redirect payroll taxes from Social Security's much larger retirement fund — as it has done in the past. However, the House adopted a rule Tuesday blocking such a move, unless it is part of a larger plan to improve Social Security's finances, by either cutting benefits or raising taxes.
Long the third rail of American politics, tinkering with Social Security has never been easy. Throw in election-year politics and finding votes in Congress to cut benefits or raise taxes could be especially difficult.
But if Congress doesn't act, benefits for 11 million disabled workers, spouses and children would be automatically cut by 19 percent. The average monthly payment for a disabled worker is $1,146, or a little less than $14,000 a year.
And yes, disability benefits are different from old age benefits. Technically, those are two separate funds, and the disability fund is definitely running out of money. But House Republicans are blocking the usual move to tap old age benefits to fund the disability account (and the old age account is doing just fine, thanks.)
That means the fight over Social Security cuts is now one of the big issues in 2016, and Republicans are going to try to find a way to force President Obama to accept them, then blame Democrats for the cuts in perpetuity.
We'll see how this fight plays out this year and next, but keep an eye on the news. Republicans have been waiting to gut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid for years now, and this is the best chance they've got. (What, did you think they were going to wait until a Republican president was in the White House to do it? Can't blame the Democrats then, can they?)