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Section IV of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution says "The validity of the public debt of the United States... shall not be questioned."

The Social Security trust fund is currently projected to run out of money in 2034, though there is still projected to be significant income into the social security system even when the trust fund runs out.

Are the US's promises to make payments under the Social Security program constitutionally protected?

Please consider 3 cases:

  1. Just before the trust fund runs out, Congress passes a law cutting benefits effective immediately.
  2. Congress does nothing about Social Security and the trust fund runs out.
  3. Government shutdown way before the trust fund runs out (e.g. over border wall funding).
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    What promises? I am unaware of having received any promise. – phoog Jun 27 '18 at 4:39
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No, it is not debt and you are not owed any money beyond what Congress decides to give you.

Section 1104 of the act says the benefits are what Congress decides to give out. This was challenged in 1960 and upheld. To quote Wikipedia:

Ephram Nestor challenged Section 1104 after he was denied Social Security payments as a deported member of the Communist Party. He argued that a contract existed between himself and the United States government, since he had paid into the system for 19 years.

...

The Court ruled that no such contract exists, and that there is no contractual right to receive Social Security payments. Payments due under Social Security are not “property” rights and are not protected by the Takings Clause of the Fifth Amendment. The interest of a beneficiary of Social Security is protected only by the Due Process Clause.

  • Does this apply even in case 2, where Congress has decided to give the money but there is no money to give? – WBT Jun 27 '18 at 1:07
  • @WBT Congress makes the budget, they can't simultaneously order money to be paid out and not have the money. cbsnews.com/news/… suggests that the program will auto-balance itself to incoming revenue once the "fund" runs out. – dsolimano Jun 27 '18 at 12:12
  • @WBT The United States Treasury automatically borrows money by issuing Treasury Bonds when a payment is authorized by law and there is not cash on hand to make that payment, up to the debt ceiling limit. The constitutionality of the debt ceiling has never been tested and there is a strong argument to be made that the debt ceiling is unconstitutional in the face of Congressional directives to spend money that are in force, in part, pursuant to the part of the U.S. Constitution cited in the OP. – ohwilleke Jun 27 '18 at 23:07
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Are the US's promises to make payments under the Social Security program constitutionally protected?

The United States government has made no such promise (prospectively anyway).

If the law in effect on a particular day says you are entitled to a Social Security payment on that particular day, you probably have a debt owed to you by the United States on that day if the debt is not paid (e.g. due to a computer glitch), because at that point it becomes a vested property right which you could bring suit in the U.S. Court of Claims to have paid to you.

But, you have no vested property right in future payments from Social Security that are not yet due under the law.

Please consider 3 cases:

Just before the trust fund runs out, Congress passes a law cutting benefits effective immediately.

Congress can change benefits at any time. Social Security benefits are not a debt (as noted by @dsolimano in another answer to this question).

The Treasury bonds in the Social Security trust fund may very well be a debt, but because the Social Security Trust fund is as a matter law of law entirely invested in U.S. Treasury Bonds it is matched by an equal and offsetting asset. It is money that a fund owned by the United States is owed by the United States. It is not owed "in trust" for the beneficiaries of Social Security, it is owed "in trust" for the United States government's Social Security program.

Congress does nothing about Social Security and the trust fund runs out.

I assume that you are saying that this is an issue if Social Security payments stopped being made because the Trust Fund ran out.

Incidentally, I don't think that Social Security payments to beneficiaries would stop being made if the trust fund ran out of money, because, as an entitlement, Social Security payments don't need annual appropriations to justify them being made by the U.S. Treasury. The trust fund balance would merely go from positive to negative, causing the Social Security program to owe a debt to the United States government in general.

Also, if the trust fund runs out then the there would be no debt to dishonor because all funds in the trust fund have been paid out. Again, the debt, if any, is not the right to Social Security payments. Social Security payments are a non-vested discretionary payment made to beneficiaries pursuant to law, not a debt, until the day that they become payable to a particular person on that date.

Government shutdown way before the trust fund runs out (e.g. over border wall funding)

First, I don't think that Social Security payments would stop in the event of a government shutdown because as an entitlement Social Security payments do not require regular Congressional authorization and government shutdowns happen because there are no funds appropriated by Congress for certain functions. Social Security payments have not stopped in these circumstances in the past.

Also, to the extent that payments stopped going out because, for example, no one showed up to the work to process them, the Social Security payments would continue to be owed and the Treasury bond debts owed to the trust fund would not be dishonored or depleted in any way.

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