Research Notes & Special Studies by the Historian's Office

Research Note #20:
The Social Security Trust Funds and the Federal Budget


In the Social Security Act of 1935 the income from the payroll tax was to be credited to a Social Security "account." Benefits were to be paid against this account, but there was no formal trust fund as such. Taxes began to be collected in January 1937, and monthly benefits were to be paid starting in January 1942 (later pushed forward to January 1940). So the payroll taxes were just credits in the Social Security account on the Treasury's ledger under the initial law.

The investment rules governing payroll tax income were also established in the 1935, and are essentially the same ones in use today. Specifically, the 1935 Act stated: "It shall be the duty of the Secretary of the Treasury to invest such portion of the amounts credited to the Account as is not, in his judgment, required to meet current withdrawals. Such investment may be made only in interest-bearing obligations of the United States or in obligations guaranteed as to both principal and interest by the United States." (See Title II, Section 201of the 1935 law)

In the 1939 Amendments, a formal trust fund was established and a requirement was put in place for annual reports on the actuarial status of the fund. Specifically, the law provided: "There is hereby created on the books of the Treasury of the United States a trust fund to be known as the 'Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund'. . . . The Trust Fund shall consist of the securities held by the Secretary of the Treasury for the Old Age Reserve Account on the books of the Treasury on January 1, 1940, which securities and amount the Secretary of the Treasury is authorized and directed to transfer to the Trust Fund, and, in addition, such amounts as may be appropriated to the Trust Fund as herein under provided." (Title II, Section 201a)

In other words, a formal trust fund was established for the Social Security program and the credits already on the Treasury's books for the Social Security program were to be transferred to this Fund, along with all future revenues raised for the program.

The investment procedures adopted in 1939 were modified only slightly from those in the original Act of 1935. Basically, changes were made in the interest rate rules governing the investments, and the Managing Trustee was designated as the investing official (who happens to be the Secretary of the Treasury in any case), but in most other respects the language was similar to that in the original law. (See the text of the 1939 Amendments for more details.)

Both the 1935 and the 1939 laws specified three types of purchases that might be made: 1) securities on original issue at par; 2) by purchase of outstanding obligations at the market price; and 3) via the issuance of "special obligation bonds" that could be issued only to the Social Security Trust Fund. These special obligation bonds were not to be marketable, although the other two forms of securities could be. The idea of special obligation bonds was not new nor unique to the Social Security program. Similar bonds were used during World War I and World War II, and it was in fact the Second Liberty Bond Act that was the law amended in 1939 to allow the Social Security program to make use of this type of government bond.

Consequently, over time the Social Security Trust Funds have included a mix of marketable and non-marketable Treasury securities. Over the years, the proportion has shifted heavily in favor of special obligation bonds as the main asset held by the Social Security Trust Funds. Prior to 1960, the Treasury's policy was to invest primarily in marketable securities, although this policy was not always followed. Since 1960, the policy has been to invest principally in special obligation bonds, unless the Managing Trustee of the funds (i.e., the Secretary of the Treasury) determines that investment in marketable securities would be "in the public interest." In fact, since 1980 no marketable securities have been added to the Trust Funds. (For a more detailed explanation see the Office of the Actuary's Actuarial Note #142.)

Since the assets in the Social Security trust funds consists of Treasury securities, this means that the taxes collected under the Social Security payroll tax are in effect being lent to the federal government to be expended for whatever present purposes the government requires. In this indirect sense, one could say that the Social Security trust funds are being spent for non-Social Security purposes. However, all this really means is that the trust funds hold their assets in the form of Treasury securities.

These financing procedures have not changed in any fundamental way since payroll taxes were first collected in 1937. What has changed, however, is the accounting procedures used in federal budgeting when it comes to the Social Security Trust Funds.



The Constitution (Article 1, section 9, clause 7) describes a very general federal budgeting process, requiring only that: "a regular Statement and account of Receipts and Expenditures of all public Money shall be published from time to time." Over the nation's history, the procedures involved in federal budgeting have varied a great deal, with a few major changes. (For a highlight summary of some important milestones see the excerpt from the Senate Budget Committee's report on the budget process.)

Modern federal budgeting has its origins in The Budget and Accounting Act of 1921. This law formalized the budget process. It regularized the process of the President producing an annual budget and submitting it to Congress in a specified procedure; it also created the Bureau of the Budget within the Office of the President (later renamed the Office of Management and Budget); and it created the General Accounting Office within the Congress to oversee the administrative branch's budget execution. From that point on, the President and his budget office controlled the presentation and content of the federal budget, and the appropriations committees in the Congress received the President's budget and acted upon it.

Trust funds are not exclusive to the Social Security program, nor were they new with its passage. At the present time, there are somewhere in excess of 150 different trust funds managed by the federal government. At the time of the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 there were already in existence two major trust funds--those involved in the Civil Service Retirement System and the Government Life Insurance Fund established to insure World War I soldiers and their families. Trust funds have often been displayed separately in the federal budget, although their precise treatment has varied over time.

(For a detailed explanation of the federal budget process--with historical background--see the Senate Budget Committee's publication The Congressional Budget Process.)

From the beginning of the Social Security program its transactions were reported by the administration as a separate function in the budget. This is sometimes described in present usage by saying that the Social Security program was "off-budget." This was the budget representation of the Social Security program from its creation in 1935 until 1968.


In early 1968 President Lyndon Johnson made a change in the budget presentation by including Social Security and all other trust funds in a"unified budget." This is likewise sometimes described by saying that Social Security was placed "on-budget."

This 1968 change grew out of the recommendations of a presidential commission appointed by President Johnson in 1967, and known as the President's Commission on Budget Concepts. The concern of this Commission was not specifically with the Social Security Trust Funds, but rather it was an effort to rationalize what the Commission viewed as a confusing budget presentation. At that time, the federal budget consisted of three separate and inconsistent sets of measures, and often budget debates became bogged-down in arguments over which of the three to use. As an illustration of the problem, the projected fiscal 1968 budget was either in deficit by $2.1 billion, $4.3 billion, or $8.1 billion, depending upon which measure one chose to use. Consequently, the Commission's central recommendation was for a single, unified, measure of the federal budget--a measure in which every function and activity of government was added together to assess the government's fiscal position.

This change took effect for the first time in the President's budget proposal for fiscal year 1969, which President Johnson presented to Congress in January 1968. This change in accounting practices did not initially put the President's budget proposal into surplus--it was still projecting an $8 billion deficit. However, it is clear that the budget deficit would have been somewhat larger without this change (it is difficult to say how much larger because this change was mixed-in with the other legislative, budgetary and fiscal policies the President was urging Congress to adopt). In early 1969--just five days before leaving office--President Johnson sent his 1970 budget message to Congress, also using the revised accounting procedures. At this point, a year later than his initial estimate, he was projecting the budget for 1969 to be in a net balance of $2.4 billion. (The fiscal year 1969 began on January 1, 1969, even though the President had released his FY 1969 budget almost a year earlier.)

The FY 1969 budget would not be implemented by President Johnson; it would instead be presided over by President Nixon, who took office on January 20,1969. This was 20 days into the 1969 fiscal year. When President Nixon took office, he too adopted the unified budget approach, and it was used by all Presidents thereafter until 1986.

One way to estimate the immediate impact of this accounting change is to look at the government's actual expenditures for FY 1969. Under the current unified budget rules, the government reported a surplus of $3.2 billion for FY 1969. Removing the "off-budget" items from the calculation would result in a net deficit of $507 million.

Source: Historical Tables: Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2006, Table 1.1, pg. 22.

Keep in mind that the Congress in the late 1960s had no independent budget process of its own. Although numerous legislative efforts had been undertaken over the years to produce a budgeting process in the Congress to parallel that of the Administration, most of these efforts proved to have little staying power. It was not until 1974 that Congress put in place the modern procedures that govern federal budgeting for Congressional purposes (as part of the Congressional Budget Impoundment and Control Act enacted in that year). This legislation created both the Congressional Budget Office and the standing budget committees in the House and Senate.

So, traditionally, the way the administration chose to present its budget material defined how the federal budget was presented. When the Congress began its own independent budgeting activities in 1974 it adopted the existing convention of treating Social Security as part of the unified budget.

"Off-Budget" Again-

In the 1983 Social Security Amendments a provision was included mandating that Social Security be taken "off-budget" starting in FY 1993. This was a recommendation from the National Commission on Social Security Reform (aka the Greenspan Commission). The Commission's report argued: "The National Commission believes that changes in the Social Security program should be made only for programmatic reasons, and not for purposes of balancing the budget. Those who support the removal of the operations of the trust funds from the budget believe that this policy of making changes only for programmatic reasons would be more likely to be carried out if the Social Security program were not in the unified budget." (Note that this was a majority recommendation of the Commission, not the unanimous view of all members.) This change was in fact enacted into statute in the Social Security Amendments of 1983, signed into law by President Reagan on April 20, 1983.

The actual form of the 1983 change was somewhat complex. It provided:

1) That the Social Security and Medicare trust funds (and the income and outgo to these funds) be treated as separate budget functions, starting with the 1985 fiscal year and ending with fiscal year 1992.

2) For the initial budget year after enactment (FY 1984) the Congress would be bound to use the new procedures but the executive branch would not (because the FY 1984 President's budget had already been submitted to Congress under the old rules).

3) Starting with fiscal year 1993, Social Security and the Medicare Part A trust funds were not only off-budget, but were exempted from any general budget reductions that might otherwise apply to the entire federal budget (such as an across-the-board cut). The Part B Medicare trust fund, while also to be shown as a separate budget function, was not protected from general budget limitations.

Thus, in this rather complicated fashion, the Social Security program was again off-budget by FY 1985. Perhaps the more important date here, however, was the 1993 date because that date exempted the Social Security program from the potential of generalized budget-cuts.


The next important change in Social Security's budget treatment came in 1985 with the passage that year of the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985. This law--informally known as Gramm-Rudman-Hollings, or GRH, after its three principal Senate sponsors: Senators Phil Gramm of Texas, Warren Rudman of New Hampshire, and Ernest Hollings of South Carolina--pushed forward from 1993 to 1986 the date by which the Social Security program would be made immune from generalized budget reductions. However, GRH also mandated that the Trust Funds be included in the budget for the purpose of determining if the total budget exceeded the deficit targets in the law. This provision was to be in effect for the entire time that GRH was in effect, which turned out to be 1986-1993.

The import of this provision was that when the federal budget exceeded the Gramm-Rudman targets, automatic across-the-board sequestration of spending kicked in. So including Social Security in the triggering calculations made the sequestration less likely (since the Trust Funds were running surpluses after 1983). So while the Social Security program was off-budget, and immune from sequestration or other generalized budget cuts, its surpluses were still being used to reduce the size of the budget deficit.

So, by 1986, Social Security was technically off-budget, but it was still being used in the deficit calculations. Absent other legislative change, this would have continued until 1993. However, in the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act (OBRA) of 1990 the law was changed to stop the use of the Trust Funds for any function in the unified budget, including calculations of the deficit. One sub-part of OBRA 1990 was called the Budget Enforcement Act (BEA), and it was this sub-part that specified this change in the law.

The BEA budget treatment of Social Security basically remains the law to the present day. Specifically, present law mandates that the two Social Security Trust Funds, and the operations of the Postal Service, are formally considered to be "off-budget" and no longer part of the unified federal budget. (The Medicare Trust Funds, by contrast, are once again part of the unified budget.) So where matters stand presently is that the transactions to the Social Security Trust Funds and the operations of the Postal Service are "off-budget" and everything else is "on-budget."

However, those involved in budget matters often produce two sets of numbers, one without Social Security included in the budget totals and one with Social Security included. Thus, Social Security is still frequently treated as though it were part of the unified federal budget even though, technically, it no longer is.

To illustrate the difference between the "on-budget" and "off-budget" parts of the federal budget, we can observe that for fiscal year 2004 the following figures were reported by OMB:

Unified Budget
Without "off-budget" items
$1.8 trillion
$1.3 trillion
$2.2 trillion
$1.9 trillion
$412 billion
$567 billion
Source: Historical Tables: Budget of the U.S. Government, Fiscal Year 2006, Table 1.1, pg. 22.


Special Note About SSA's Administrative Budget:

Although the transactions of the Social Security program itself are officially "off-budget," as explained above, the administrative budget for the agency running the program (the Social Security Administration) is not. SSA's annual administrative budget is subject to the standard budget and appropriations process. Thus each year the agency must present a separate budget request for its administrative costs (called the Limitation on Administrative Expenditures, or LAE line-item) and this request is subject to all the standard review procedures of the Office of Management and Budget and the budget and appropriations committees of the Congress.



So, to sum up:

1- Social Security was off-budget from 1935-1968;
2- On-budget from 1969-1985;
3- Off-budget from 1986-1990, for all purposes except computing the deficit;
4- Off-budget for all purposes since 1990.

Finally, just note once again that the financing procedures involving the Social Security program have not changed in any fundamental way since they were established in the original Social Security Act of 1935 and amended in 1939. These changes in federal budgeting rules govern how the Social Security program is accounted for in the federal budget, not how it is financed.


Larry DeWitt
SSA Historian's Office
March 4, 2005
Updated 6/18/07