Democrats unite to expand Social Security
© Getty Images

Ever since Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpFeinstein, Iranian foreign minister had dinner amid tensions: report The Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign MORE entered the White House, his chaos, corruption, and incompetence have dominated the headlines. His behavior has eclipsed many important policy debates, not least among them the future of Social Security.

But while Social Security might not be in the news, it is just as important as ever to the American people. Social Security provides benefits to 63 million people. It provides the majority of income of most people over age 65. Indeed, it provides all or nearly all of the income of around one out of three senior beneficiaries and lifts 22 million Americans, including 1.7 million children, out of poverty.

ADVERTISEMENT

Reliance on Social Security benefits will only increase in the future as a result of the decline in traditional, employer-sponsored pensions and the proven inadequacy of 401(k)s as a replacement. Democrats understand that the solution to this looming retirement income crisis is to expand Social Security’s modest benefits.

The 2016 Democratic Platform included a strong plank in support of expanding benefits. The Social Security 2100 Act, a benefit expansion bill sponsored by Rep. John Larson John Barry LarsonUnchain seniors from chained inflation index A tax increase is simply not the answer to fund Social Security Social Security is approaching crisis territory MORE (D-Conn.), is co-sponsored by over 90 percent of House Democrats. And 90 percent of Senate Democrats are on record in support of expanding, not cutting, Social Security.

In recognition of this sound policy, and to bring it closer to a reality, Senate and House Democrats are forming a bicameral Expand Social Security Caucus. In the Senate, the caucus is co-chaired by Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersHarris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign 2020 Dems put spotlight on disabilities issues Lee, Sanders introduce bill to tax Wall Street transactions MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenThe Hill's Morning Report - Trump says no legislation until Dems end probes Harris readies a Phase 2 as she seeks to rejuvenate campaign 2020 Dems put spotlight on disabilities issues MORE (D-Mass.). In the House, the caucus is chaired by Reps. Larson, Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellDemocrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure Dems walk Trump trade tightrope Pompeo, Army chief of staff attend ceremony honoring Bob Dole MORE (D-Mich.), Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), Conor Lamb (D-Pa.), and Terri SewellTerrycina (Terri) Andrea SewellCongress: Support legislation to defend Medicare home health  House Dem calls on lawmakers to 'insulate' election process following Mueller report Dems counter portrait of discord MORE (D-Ala.).

These seven co-chairs represent a geographically and politically diverse cross-section of the Democratic Party. Sanders and Warren are New Englanders who are recognized nationwide as bold progressives. Grijalva, a Southwesterner, is co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a member of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. Sewell, a Southerner, is a vice-chair of the centrist New Democrat Coalition and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. Dingell, a Midwesterner, is vice-chair of the Seniors Task Force, and comes from a family with a long history of fighting to protect and expand Social Security.

Yet it is the leadership of Lamb that might be the most revealing of all. Lamb is a rising Democratic star who pulled off a special election upset in a blue-collar district in the mid-Atlantic state of Pennsylvania. He campaigned aggressively on protecting and expanding Social Security.

Both his electoral victory and exit polling show that he represents the will of Pennsylvanians, and, indeed, the overwhelming majority of Americans, on the important issue of protecting and expanding Social Security. Poll after poll reveals that large majorities of Americans of all ages, genders, races and political affiliations support expanding Social Security by asking millionaires and billionaires to pay more into the system.

Lamb is one of the youngest members of the Democratic caucus. He represents the future. He recognizes that Social Security will be even more important for younger generations. He understands that expanding Social Security is a solution.

Just a few short years ago, expanding Social Security was outside the mainstream. It was something only a handful of Social Security experts talked about. A campaign orchestrated by billionaires with oversized influence, including the Koch brothers and the late Pete Peterson, deceived many Americans into thinking that the United States – the wealthiest nation in the world at the wealthiest moment in its history – could no longer afford Social Security.

Our elected leaders were among those tricked into believing this lie. But, Democrats have now seen the light and reclaimed their legacy.

Republican politicians, on the other hand, continue to push the lie that Social Security is unaffordable and keep demanding benefit cuts. Donald Trump understands how politically toxic his party’s position is. That’s why he is trying to muddy the waters by claiming, in a recent interview, to be the real champion of Social Security and that Democrats – the party that created and defended Social Security, over its 83-year history – are now out to destroy it.

Trump’s claim would be laughable if Social Security weren’t so important. In contrast to the Democratic Social Security proposals and the Expand Social Security Caucus, the Republican budget plan proposes cuts to Social Security. (In the same interview, Trump claimed that Democrats also want to destroy Medicare. The reality is not hard to see. In contrast to the Democratic proposals for improved and expanded Medicare for All and the Medicare for All Caucus, the Republican budget plan proposes even deeper cuts to Medicare than it does to Social Security.)

The formation of the Expand Social Security Caucus is the perfect response to Trump’s lies. By making it clear that the Democratic Party is united around expanding, not cutting, Social Security’s modest benefits, it exposes the utter absurdity of Trump’s claims.

The Expand Social Security Caucus highlights the stark contrast between the parties, and makes it clear that Social Security is on the ballot this November. If Republicans retain control of both Houses of Congress, they will be emboldened to push hard in 2019 for the Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid cuts in their budget. And that will be only the beginning. Their ultimate goal is to utterly destroy all three programs in service of their anti-government ideology.

If Democrats take control of the House, the exact opposite will happen. Rep. Larson, who will become chair of the Social Security Subcommittee of the Ways and Means Committee, will hold hearings on expanding Social Security, followed by committee and floor votes. Republicans, including Donald Trump, will face a choice between going along with the expansion legislation or opposing the will of the overwhelming majority of the American people.

If they take the latter route, refusing to protect and expand Social Security, Democrats will expose the Republican elite’s true colors as opponents of this profoundly wise and overwhelmingly popular proposal. Americans will hold them accountable at the voting booth. Either way – if Republicans go along or temporarily block expansion legislation – the passage of legislation protecting and expanding benefits will not be far off.

Once the goal of the newly formed Expand Social Security Caucus is realized and benefits are increased, Social Security will once again recede from the headlines. But this time, it will be for the right reason: Not because of a disgraceful circus of corruption in the White House, but because Social Security once again provides not only cash benefits but the intangible benefit of security, peace of mind.

Working families will once again know that their earned benefits are there to protect them in the event of disability, death or old age. But this will only happen if every American who rejects cuts to Social Security and wants to see it expanded knows where the candidates stand and votes accordingly this November.

Nancy Altman is president of Social Security Works and Alex Lawson is Executive Director of Social Security Works.