Social Security and a balanced federal budget weighed heavily on the minds of those attending a Thursday town hall meeting with U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash.
A good number of the 75 people in the audience at Columbia Basin College looked to have paid into Social Security for at least two to three decades, some more, and many said they were worried about cuts and how to fund it.
Others asked whether workers should be given the choice of establishing their own individual account versus being forced to pay into Social Security.
Questions were submitted to Hastings beforehand and randomly pulled from a basket.
Hastings agreed Social Security needs "significant reform" but said the first principal is that "if you're in the system, there can be no changes to your benefits. We can't do that."
"But with people living into their late 70s, we need to make changes. When Social Security was put into place in 1935, the average American only lived to age 62. But you couldn't collect until age 65; the government was betting most people wouldn't live that long," Hastings said.
Back then, the ratio of workers paying in to each person drawing Social Security payments was 40-to-1. Now it's become 2.5 to 3 people paying in for each per person drawing, he said.
"That's not sustainable," he said.
Hastings said there are many ideas out there on how to reform Social Security, and Medicaid and Medicare too.
"(The government, Congress) need to dialog with the younger people. This issue will only get more and more serious," he said.
What's good, he said, is Americans who are 35 to 40 years old are getting more interested and active in politics.
"With the issues we're facing, the budget, Social Security and others, that can only be good for the country," he said.
Hastings expressed concern about the fiscal health of the country and the crushing burden of debt the government is carrying.
"The United States has a national debt of $14.3 trillion. If you had just a trillion dollars in debt and paid it off at a million dollars a day, it would take 3,000 years," Hastings said.
His staff flashed a chart marking the progress of the gross national product on the screen. It showed a spike during World War II, then some unremarkable ups and downs for 70 years until 2010, when it took a sharp uptick through 2080, which is where the chart ended.
"I'd be the first to admit estimating future spending is an inexact science," he said, adding, "I expect by mid-2020 to see spending go way out of sight."
What's needed, Hastings said, is a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, something he has been promoting since 1995, when a balanced budget bill passed the House but failed by one vote in the Senate.
"At that time I think three-quarters of the states would have ratified it and we'd not be where we are now," he said.
Hastings said mandatory spending -- Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, interest and "other" mandatory payments -- make up two-thirds of the federal budget.
The other third is made up of defense and nondefense spending, leaving very little room for cuts.
He pointed out the House passed a balanced budget Aug. 1.
The Senate, with just two more days before the end of the country's fiscal year, has yet to do so.
"We've done our job, they haven't," he said. "Until they do, how can the House and Senate begin to negotiate?"
"The next three months will be very, very critical in the work we have to do. Hopefully, before the end of the year Congress will pass a balanced budget amendment," Hastings said.