For those who hope to collect Medicare and Social Security benefits one day, there was just a bit of good news in the recent annual report from the programs' trustees.
Medicare's finances have gotten stronger. The program's hospital insurance trust fund won't be exhausted until 2030, according to the trustees. That's four years later than was expected a year ago. The reason hospital spending was lower than expected is not clear, but factors include the recession, the Affordable Care Act and the general slowdown in the growth of health care costs.
Social Security's finances haven't gotten better, but they haven't gotten any worse, either. Its trust fund is projected to be depleted in 2033, the same date the trustees projected last year. Even if no changes are made to extend its solvency -- for instance, raising the retirement age, reducing cost-of-living increases or raising the income cap on payroll deductions -- the program will be able to pay promised benefits until then.
But Congress must not seize on the trustees' projections as an excuse to continue doing nothing to extend the programs' solvency. Lawmakers should see this moment for what it is -- a window of opportunity. The longer Congress delays and President Barack Obama fails to press the issue, the more painful the changes needed will become for beneficiaries and taxpayers.
One area in which the urgency is clear is the Social Security program that pays monthly benefits to people with disabilities. It is projected to run short of money in 2016. Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew has recommended shifting more payroll tax revenue to the disability insurance program for two years, an approach used in the past. But that's just a stopgap.
Congress has shown a shameful lack of the political courage needed to shore up these essential programs. Reform brings political peril, but Obama and Congress weren't elected to do only what's easy.