"Social Security will soon be swamped by a demographic tidal wave that can't be stopped," said Rep. Bill Archer, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the retirement program.
Social Security's trustees in their annual report released Tuesday predicted three extra years of full pension benefits for retiring baby boomers before a potential cash shortfall in 2032.
Many Republican lawmakers are calling for a new retirement system, based on personal accounts invested privately by workers. Democrats in Congress said the slightly more optimistic forecast for Social Security shows how far modest changes can go toward solving the program's problems.
"Some in Congress want to use a shortfall at least three decades in the future as an excuse to invest the Social Security trust funds in volatile equity markets," said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt. "Clearly, time remains to have a reasoned discussion."
The improvement in Social Security's prospects is "almost entirely due to the strength of the U.S. economy and our projections that over the near term that strength continues," Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin said.
Unemployment and inflation are at their lowest levels in decades, and with more Americans on the job, the taxes deducted from workers' paychecks to support Social Security are up.
Low inflation also saves Social Security money because yearly cost-of-living raises to retirees can be smaller. This year's raise was just 2.1 percent, the lowest in a decade.
Social Security, in fact, now collects more payroll taxes than are needed to pay benefits to today's retirees. The surpluses are invested in government bonds.
The program will not need to start cashing in those investments in 2013, the trustees said _ a year later than previously expected. At that time, baby boomers _ the large group of people born from 1946 through 1964 _ will have begun retiring, and it is projected that the taxes paid by those left in the work force won't cover their pensions.
Because times are so good, however, the money now accumulating will be enough to pay full Social Security benefits until 2032, rather than 2029 as previously thought, the trustees said. If changes to the system are not made, the government at that point would be able to pay only about three-quarters of promised benefits.
The trustees _ including Rubin, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and two private citizens _ also released their annual report on Medicare, the nation's health insurance program for the elderly and disabled.
Changes made in last year's balanced budget act, including tighter controls on fees paid to doctors and hospitals, will extend Medicare's ability to pay its bills until 2008, the trustees said.
That's better than the 2001 predicted before, but still two years ahead of the first big wave of baby boomer retirements.
A bipartisan commission this spring began brainstorming for solutions to Medicare's problems.
GOP leaders planned to bring legislation to the House floor today to create a similar commission on Social Security. They said the town meetings already begun by President Clinton were too vulnerable to partisan exploitation in this congressional election year.
But the administration has discouraged the commission idea. "Our view is, was and continues to be that the plan the president set out is the best way to get to a consensus," said Rubin.