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And the internal rules governing the Senate and House of Representatives rarely attract much outside interest. That is until the Republican-controlled House adopted a rule last week dealing with Social Security. Sponsors of the rules say they're protecting retirees. Critics say it's a backdoor attempt to completely overhaul the system. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging and filed this report.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: When you think of Social Security funding, if you ever do, you think of that big pile of government money that pays out monthly retirement benefits. But there's a second Social Security fund. That's the one that pays benefits to about 9 million people who are too disabled to work, and that fund is going to run out of money next year if Congress doesn't do something.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If we do nothing, disability recipients are looking at a 20 percent cut in their benefit.
JAFFE: But retirees stand to lose more, says Republican Congressman Tom Reed. He's one of the co-sponsors of the House rule that's causing the controversy. It would prevent House members from using money designated for retirement benefits to shore up the disability fund.
REPRESENTATIVE TOM REED: By just taking from the retiree trust fund, you are threatening retirees. And that's why we've got to stop that.
JAFFE: But moving money back and forth between the two funds has been done 11 times in the past with no big repercussions. That's one of the reasons that Democratic Senator Dick Durbin is suspicious of House Republicans.
SENATOR DICK DURBIN: You wonder what their ultimate goal is. Do they want to cut people off of disability? Do they want to force a crisis in the Social Security program? I just don't understand the thinking behind this rule.
JAFFE: So Durbin and seven other Democratic senators wrote to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, asking him to refrain from adding anything similar to rules governing the Senate.
DURBIN: If the Senate did the same thing, we wouldn't be in the business of maintaining the most important single social program in America today.
VIRGINIA RENO: It would just be unconscionable to tell people counting on disability benefits that their benefits would be cut.
JAFFE: Says Virginia Reno, a vice president at the nonpartisan National Academy of Social Insurance. As things stand now, she says, disability benefits are just enough to keep someone above the poverty line.
RENO: The average disability benefit is a little under $1,200 a month. And more than half of disability beneficiaries get three-quarters or more of their income from those benefits. So it's - they really rely heavily on them.
JAFFE: The House rule does offer a kind of escape hatch. House members could shift money from the retirement trust fund to disability, but only if the move would increase the long-term solvency of both the retirement and disability funds. That has Democrats, like Senator Durbin, concerned that the House rule could lead to a sneak attack on the whole Social Security system.
DURBIN: I can tell you the Republican Party has really stood by the privatization of Social Security. Many of us think that's a terrible idea. So I don't know if this is their way of moving towards privatization, but it's a bad idea.
JAFFE: Congressman Reed, who co-sponsored the rule, says he's only focusing on fixing the disability fund. And since he's against raising taxes, he's looking at ways to cut cost.
REED: Things like rooting out the waste, fraud and abuse.
JAFFE: Reed also wants to take a critical look at who is receiving disability benefits. Maybe, he says, some of them can be moved off the program and into jobs. At the same time...
REED: Make sure that those that are catastrophically disabled keep getting those benefits that are there.
JAFFE: The new House rule says Reed has at least succeeded in pushing the conversation about Social Security. And with the disability trust fund due to run dry next year, he expects that Congress will soon move beyond talk. Ina Jaffe, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.