Congress Blog

By refusing to raise the debt limit, Republicans are gambling with Americans' Social Security benefits

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If Congress does not act to raise the debt limit soon, the country will be plunged into a financial crisis -  and the government will have massive difficulty paying its bills, including sending Social Security checks to some 65 million beneficiaries. This would be an unconscionable outcome - not only for the country, but for the retirees, people with disabilities, and their families, who depend on Social Security to make ends meet each and every month. I have just sent a letter to all 100 senators imploring them to avoid this catastrophe.  

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has said that the government will exhaust its cash reserves on Oct. 18 if Congress fails to act. Though Social Security is a self-funded program with $2.9 trillion in federally-held securities, the Treasury department must have cash on hand to pay benefits when they are due. This month, Treasury is required by law to make some $90 billion in payments to retirees, disabled workers, widows, widowers, children, and spouses who receive Social Security benefits. The Treasury may not have enough incoming revenue to make those payments without the authority to cash in these securities. 

A default is entirely avoidable, but Republicans refuse to exercise their fiduciary duty and join Democrats in raising the debt ceiling. It is a routine matter of congressional business. Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell, who has voted 32 times to raise the debt limit (including three times during the Trump administration), says his members will stand stubbornly against it this time. 

This makes no sense, except as a shameless political ploy. Raising the debt limit would allow the federal government to meet its financial obligations for funds it has already expended - including the 2017 GOP tax cuts and COVID relief under President Trump.  

"This money was spent under a Republican Senate, a Republican House and Republican president," said Sen. John Tester (D-Mont.). "So I think the Republicans have some obligation here to do what's right." 

We agree. But Sen. McConnell wants to force Democrats to go it alone and raise the debt ceiling on their own, so that Republicans can use it against them in the 2022 election cycle. In other words, Mitch McConnell is willing to gamble with Americans' Social Security benefits for the basest of political reasons. Delaying checks for these beneficiaries, potentially for weeks or months, will force them to decide whether they will pay the rent, buy food or postpone filling their prescriptions.

It's hard for me to square McConnell's indifference with what I hear from everyday people about how they could not survive without their Social Security checks. And it's not just what beneficiaries have told me. They recently testified before Congress, saying: "I wouldn't be able to pay my rent without it"... "Social Security is essential to me as a widow and single mother"... and "I need every penny to make ends meet." 

It is interesting that after turning a blind eye toward the debt and deficits during the Trump administration (not to mention the George W. Bush presidency), Republicans have found religion again and become fiscal hawks. They weren't so hawkish when it came to showering the wealthy and big corporations with tax cuts they didn't need. But when it comes to the needs of everyday Americans, the deficit becomes issue No. 1 for the GOP.   

 McConnell also is using the debt ceiling as a bludgeon against President Biden's Build Back Better plan - which, among other things, would expand Medicare and boost home and community-based care for the elderly. As the Associated Press reported, Republicans say the proposal isn't needed and can't be afforded given accumulated federal debt exceeding $28 trillion. They also argue that it reflects Democrats' drive to insert government into people's lives.

Apparently, the GOP doesn't realize that the government is already 'inserted' into Americans' lives and well-being, and the majority of people want it that way.  Think of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Affordable Care Act, CHIP, disaster relief, Pell grants, unemployment insurance, nutrition programs, and more. Government is one of the first places people turn in times of need and crisis. The COVID pandemic has demonstrated this better than anything else.  

Not only should Republicans join Democrats in their duty to raise the debt limit; this legislation should be free of attempts to cut Social Security and Medicare or discretionary programs important to seniors. Increasing the debt limit should be done quickly, cleanly and without putting the benefits of America's seniors in jeopardy. 

The failure to do so "would bring the entire... economy to its knees," said Senate Budget Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-VT).  "Do I think Republicans are that crazy? No, I don't."  Crazy, no. But reckless and ruthless? Perhaps.   

"Leader McConnell should not be playing political games with the full faith and credit of the United States," said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. "Americans pay their debts." Normally, we do pay our debts. But if the Congress fails to do so because of GOP obstructionism, seniors, the disabled, and their families will be among those paying the price. 

Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. He is former staff director of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. 

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