Explaining Southern California's economy

The tax cut even Republicans can hate

Reid And Senate Democrats Speak On Payroll Tax Plan

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 07: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) (C) holds a news conference about extending the payroll tax cut with Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin (D-IL) (L) and U.S. Sen. Robert Casey (D-PA) at the U.S. Capitol December 7, 2011 in Washington, DC. Reid promised that the tax cut, which is set to expire at the end of the year, will be extended even if he has to keep the Senate in session through the holidays. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The debate in Congress over the payroll tax-cut extension, which is going down the same route as...pretty much every other debate in Congress this session, has created a sort of political Bizarro World. The proposed legislation wouldn't just extend the payroll tax cut, it would also tackle other funding issues. But the payroll tax-cut is where the action is.

The concern, among a strange axis of conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats, is that extending the tax cut will threaten Social Security. Benefits outpaced revenues in 2010. But as this chart from the New York Times shows, that's not unprecedented — Social Security payments ran above revenues in the 1970s and '80s. 

However, since the late 1980s, Social Security has been running a surplus, with the extra money invested in interest-earning Treasury bonds. That funds now stands at $2.6 trillion. The cost of the payroll tax cut? $105 billion.

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