Contributors

We can't allow Congress to take earned benefits programs away from seniors

Make no mistake: recent developments on the Hill should provide seniors with some sense of relief about the future of the programs they depend upon. But, as with an approaching storm whose course keeps changing, any sense of relief can only be temporary. Congressional conservatives' attempts to gut Medicaid, privatize Medicare, and cut programs that benefit older Americans have been slowed, but not stopped.

Seniors, along with most Americans, had reason to cheer when President Trump cut a deal with Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) to suspend the debt ceiling and pass a continuing resolution to keep the government from shutting down at the end of this month. This means that potential cuts in discretionary spending programs - from Meals on Wheels to home heating assistance for seniors - are safe until Congress takes up the budget again

What's more, the deal with President Trump gives Democrats leverage in upcoming negotiations on "sequester relief" where they can press to lift draconian caps on non-defense discretionary spending, including programs for seniors. The deal also weakened a strategy by conservative Republicans (including White House budget director Mick Mulvaney) to use the debt ceiling issue to muscle through Medicare privatization and drastic cuts to Medicaid.

Still, the framework for both of those damaging proposals lives on in the House 2018 budget resolution which passed out of committee in July. That resolution includes:

  • Converting Medicare into a voucher program
  • Cutting $500 billion from Medicare
  • Raising the Medicare eligibility age
  • Gutting Medicaid
  • Repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act

Republicans still don't have the votes to bring the budget resolution to the floor, largely because House Freedom Caucus members don't think the cuts to mandatory spending programs are deep enough. But the resolution is likely to pass at some point in the months to come.

On the Senate side, Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) is working on a version of the budget resolution that may include some of the House's Medicare and Medicaid proposals. If so, these provisions may end up in the final budget to come out of the House-Senate conference committee.

At the same time, the Senate Appropriations committee appears to be rejecting the Trump administration's proposed cuts to other programs for vulnerable seniors. Instead, the committee has essentially flatlined home heating assistance, the State Health Insurance Program (SHIP), and Older Americans Act programs funding. That's good news for seniors for now. But there is also discouraging news. The committee proposes to reduce funding for the already struggling Social Security Administration (SSA) operating budget from $12.4 billion to $11.9 billion. Fortunately, key lawmakers hope to boost the agency's funding as part of a larger budget deal.

One of the worst parts of the Trump budget is $72 billion in cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance. Budget director Mulvaney made the incredible claim that SSDI isn't really part of Social Security, so cutting it supposedly wouldn't violate President Trump's promise to protect Social Security. The House budget resolution appears to tacitly endorses the President's cuts by suggesting that SSDI be "reformed."

Even if they don't succeed in cutting senior programs now, Republican leadership could try to cut earned benefits to pay for tax cuts for the rich - opening a new front in the budget battle.

Amid snippets of mixed news from Capitol Hill this past week, do we sit by and simply hope for the best? The answer is obvious. Just as we don't stay put waiting for disaster to hit, seniors and their advocates must remain mobilized to defend our earned benefits.

Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, a membership organization which promotes the financial security, health, and well being of current and future generations of maturing Americans.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

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