Claim linking Joe Biden to Social Security taxes is misleading

Posts widely shared on social media suggest that Joe Biden is responsible for taxes on Social Security in 1983.  Those posts mislead on the details. The posts also twist Biden’s proposals on retirement contributions.

Biden was one of 88 senators who voted for a bipartisan bill in 1983 to tax up to 50% of Social Security for beneficiaries with income above a certain threshold. That vote came at a time when the Social Security trust fund for retirement benefits was running out of money. This was after a Reagan-led commission issued a report that formed the basis for amendments to the Social Security program. 

As reported by Saranac Hale Spencer on FactCheck.org

 

A claim linking Joe Biden to Social Security taxes has been shared widely online, but it offers a misleading interpretation of how the taxes were established, Biden’s role and the vice president’s tax plan.

Text posts shared on Facebook and Twitter — where actor and wellspring of dubious claims James Woods garnered more than 45,000 retweets — make this claim: “Prior to 1983, social security was not taxable. Joe Biden voted successfully in favor of taxing 50% of social security. In 1993, Joe Biden was the deciding vote in raising taxes on social security from 50% to 85%. Now he wants to tax our 401k’s and IRA’s (page 78, Dems’ platform)”

We’ll address each of the three parts of that claim below.

“Prior to 1983, social security was not taxable. Joe Biden voted successfully in favor of taxing 50% of social security.”

That’s not the whole story. Biden was one of 88 senators who voted for a bipartisan bill in 1983 to tax up to 50% of Social Security for beneficiaries with income above a certain threshold. That vote came at a time when the Social Security trust fund for retirement benefits was running out of money.

In the early 1980s, President Ronald Reagan, with congressional leaders, convened a bipartisan commission to study the issue. In 1983, that commission issued a report that formed the basis for amendments to the Social Security program. Among the recommendations in the report was that benefits be taxed as income for recipients who had income over a certain threshold.

Congress set that threshold a little higher than recommended, at $25,000 for single people and $32,000 for married couples. That would be equivalent to about $64,000 and $82,000 today, adjusted for inflation using the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ consumer price index calculator.

A Senate Finance Committee report issued in March 1983 said that the bill would assure that those with low incomes wouldn’t pay taxes, but those with “substantial taxable income from other sources” would be taxed on some of the benefits they receive.

The income thresholds weren’t indexed to inflation, though. So, as time went on, inflation would rise but the thresholds would remain the same, effectively lowering the bar that was intended to keep low-income beneficiaries from being taxed and adding more beneficiaries to the tax rolls.

It should also be noted that the thresholds weren’t a hard line above which everyone would be treated the same. Rather, the bill set out a formula with a gradual increase in the amount of benefits eligible to be taxed, which maxed out at half of a recipient’s benefits.

All of the taxes collected on those benefits would go back into the Social Security coffers.

The bill that included that change to the program passed in a bipartisan vote in 1983. Biden was one of 88 senators who voted for it. Only nine senators voted against it.

When Reagan signed the bill into law, he praised the bipartisan effort in his remarks and was joined by members of both parties. “This bill demonstrates for all time our nation’s ironclad commitment to Social Security,” he said.

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