Idaho retirees may want to give a tip of the hat to former Sen. Frank Church at the end of this year, when a 5.9 percent increase in Social Security benefits takes effect.

The 5.9 percent cost of living adjustment, or COLA, is the largest such increase in 40 years. It’s three times the size of the average increase over the past decade, and will provide about $93 in added monthly benefits to more than 65 million American retirees.

Church, who served 24 years in the U.S. Senate, is best known for his environmental legacy, including his sponsorship of the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

However, as chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging in 1972, he sponsored an amendment requiring automatic COLAs for Social Security.

“Prior to that, any increase required congressional action,” said former Idaho Congressman Larry LaRocco, who worked as Church’s north Idaho field coordinator beginning in 1975.

By tying the increase to the rate of inflation and making it automatic, the Church amendment “took it out of the political realm (and) helped protect senior citizens from the ravages of inflation,” LaRocco said. “Frank thought it was the right thing to do.”

The automatic COLAs began during a period of high inflation. Without them — or similar action on the part of Congress — the buying power of Social Security benefits would have been cut in half by the early ’80s.

The Social Security Administration itself describes Church’s amendment as “one of the most important pieces of Social Security legislation (ever) enacted.”

However, the agency also notes that automatic inflation adjustments help drive up program costs.

In their most recent annual report to Congress in August, the administration’s Board of Trustees said Social Security expenditures now exceed revenues and are beginning to eat into financial reserves.

The reserve account for retiree benefits is projected to run out of money by 2033; the account for disability benefits will be depleted by 2057.

To address the situation, the board said Congress either needs to increase payroll deductions — which provide the revenue for Social Security benefits — or cut benefits by upward of 21 percent.

“If substantial actions are deferred for several years, the changes necessary to maintain Social Security solvency would be concentrated on fewer years and fewer generations,” the report says.

LaRocco said it’s incumbent upon Congress to take steps to preserve the Social Security system.

“For so many people now, Social Security is the only retirement safety net,” he said. “We’re dealing with a frozen Congress that isn’t dealing with key issues, such as the financial instability of Social Security. There needs to be leadership, but unfortunately Congress continues to kick the can down the road. There are smoke alarms going off all over the place.”

If there’s any good news, it’s that Congress has been in this situation before.

In 1977, for example, the projected 75-year shortfall for Social Security was estimated at 8 percent of the total taxable payroll that paid into the program. That compares with 3.5 percent today.

In response, Congress modified the benefits formula to reduce long-term benefits.

Similarly, in 1983 lawmakers took additional steps to shore up the system — expanding the pool of workers who were covered by Social Security and who paid into the program and gradually increasing the retirement age for full benefits from 65 to 67.

The automatic COLAs proposed by Sen. Church survived both of those reforms.

“I’m so proud to have worked for him,” LaRocco said. “He changed a lot of lives, and showed what a good public servant can do.”

Spence may be contacted at bspence@lmtribune.com or (208) 791-9168.