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Social Security Reform: Legal Analysis of Social Security Benefit Entitlement Issues

CRS – Social Security Reform: Legal Analysis of Social Security Benefit Entitlement Issues. Emily M. Lanz, Legislative Attorney; Thomas J. Nicola, Legislative Attorney. September 17, 2014

“Calculations indicating that the Social Security program will not be financially sustainable in the long run under the present statutory scheme have fueled the current debate regarding Social Security reform. This report addresses selected legal issues that may be raised regarding entitlement to Social Security benefits as Congress considers possible changes to the Social Security program in view of projected long-range shortfalls in the Social Security Trust Funds. Social Security is a statutory entitlement program. Beneficiaries have a legal entitlement to receive Social Security benefits as set forth under the Social Security Act. The fact that Social Security benefits are financed by taxes on an employee’s wages, however, does not limit Congress’s power to fix the levels of benefits under the Social Security Act or the conditions upon which they may be paid. Congress’s authority to modify provisions of the Social Security program was affirmed in the 1960 Supreme Court decision in Flemming v. Nestor, wherein the Court held that an individual does not have an accrued “property right” in his or her Social Security benefits. The Court has made clear in subsequent court decisions that the payment of Social Security taxes conveys no contractual rights to Social Security benefits. Congress has the power legislatively to promise to pay individuals a certain level of Social Security benefits, and to provide legal evidence of Congress’s “guarantee” of the obligation of the federal government to provide for the payment of such benefits in the future. While Congress may decide to take whatever measures necessary to fulfill such an obligation, courts would be unlikely to find that Congress’s unilateral promise constitutes a contract which could not be modified in the future. In addition, a congressional promise not to reduce a specific level of Social Security benefits payable to certain eligible individuals would likely not overcome the constitutional principle, subject to due process considerations, that one Congress may not bind a subsequent Congress to legislative action or inaction.”

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