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French Senate votes to raise retirement age by two years as US considers action to shore up Social Security

By Sarah May
|
March 9, 2023

Amid the French Senate's controversial Thursday decision to raise the age of retirement from 62 to 64, similar debates are also raging among American lawmakers on how to ensure the sustainability of the Social Security program, with bipartisan solutions continuing to remain elusive, as Politico reports.

The legislative action taken in France has already spurred highly disruptive, large-scale protests in that country, and the absence of consensus in the U.S. on the best way to preserve the solvency of the massive domestic entitlement program could ultimately cause tensions to reach a deafening crescendo, according to insiders.

Protests grip France

As Reuters reports, French senators this week gave an initial win to President Emmanuel Macron in his push to enact pension reforms, doing so by a margin of 201 to 115.

The country's upper chamber is expected to pass additional portions of the reform bill later in the week, at which point it will go to a mediation panel to achieve reconciliation between the Senate and the National Assembly, with Macron's government hoping the changes will go through fully by month's end.

CNN has reported that far-reaching protests impacting numerous sectors of the French economy have broken out in response to the potential change in retirement age in recent days, with massive strikes bringing air travel and train transport to a grinding halt and forcing school closures and other significant disruptions.

According to the Associated Press, an unusually large contingent of those protesting are young people in their teens and twenties who dispute Macron's arguments about the need to keep the pension system stable for an increasingly older population and instead believe that corporate entities or the wealthy should foot the bill to keep the scheme afloat.

Stateside battle brewing

As Politico notes, similar – though currently less volatile – dilemmas are also bearing down on the United States and its system of retirement benefits, but vexing political realities are giving rise to real doubts about whether any agreement on a solution is in the offing.

With the Congressional Budget Office recently projecting that Social Security could reach the point of insolvency as soon as 2032, as the Washington Examiner noted, a bipartisan group of senators has set about negotiating possible areas of common ground in order to address the rapidly approaching crisis.

Though few concrete details have yet to emerge from the discussions, reporting that has trickled out suggests that an increase in the retirement age is indeed on the table, with an upward adjustment from the current age of 67 for those born after 1960 up to age 70.

It has also been suggested that participating lawmakers are discussing a possible change to the benefits calculation formula designed to shift away from a system that determines payments based on average lifetime earnings to one that bases disbursements on how many years a retiree made payments into the system.

Delicate balance sought

Considering the intractable nature of so many legislative disputes in the sharply divided Congress, it is no surprise that any attempt at reforming an entitlement program as popular and arguably inviolate as Social Security is sure to be an uphill battle.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE) is among those participating in bipartisan discussions on the issue, and he is among the first to admit that making any material changes to Social Security “is one of the most difficult things for Congress to do,” as Politico noted.

Underscoring the fundamentally divergent points of view among legislators, Coons said, “Democrats, for the whole time I've been here, say: 'Social Security is easy to fix, just raise taxes,'” adding, “Republicans refuse to do that. Republicans say, 'this is easy to fix, simply raise the age of eligibility or [otherwise] reduce benefits over time.' Democrats refuse to do that.”

The obvious dichotomy has Congress on edge, according to Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL), who said, “Right now it's not a welcoming context for a bipartisan solution with big changes.”

Tempting political cudgel

Though there appears to be motivation on both sides of the aisle to find constructive solutions to the impending Social Security crisis, not everyone is convinced that there is sufficient political will at a broader congressional level to get the job done.

Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), who is among the leaders of the bipartisan negotiation group, put things rather bluntly, saying, “There's the policy. There's the politics and the process. The policy is absolutely ready for primetime.”

“The politics and the process is what we have to work now. We have a strong bipartisan group in the Senate, but until you get the White House and the House of Representatives...you really can't go far,” Cassidy added.

As Sen. Mike Rounds (R-SD) lamented about the historically untouchable nature of Social Security, “It's a really easy third rail to use on both sides of the aisle, if you want to go after an opponent,” but considering that both sides seem to have acknowledged that the program's solvency is a ticking time bomb, it behooves the parties to do what is needed to thaw the state of cold war that has persisted on the matter for decades.