Republicans want to ‘reform’ Social Security behind closed doors — beware!
Republican politicians are scared to death. They seek to create a smoke-filled room to provide political cover. Of what issue are they so terrified? Social Security.
Republican politicians say they support Social Security. They say they want to eliminate its projected shortfall. But do they offer a substantive proposal? Absolutely not. Instead, they hide behind process to avoid political accountability.
They want Democrats to hide with them behind closed doors. The goal is to come up with an unamendable package, supported by Democrats, that is full of benefit cuts and gives Republicans political cover to rob working families of their earned benefits. Fortunately, the Democrats will have no part of it.
Democratic policymakers are offering concrete proposals for all the world to see. They are begging their Republican colleagues to release a proposal of their own.
The Democrats are calling the Republicans’ bluff, but the Republicans are refusing to show their cards. Why? Because they are afraid. The reason they are so afraid is not hard to see. They are radically out of step with their own voters.
As polarized as Americans are over many issues, poll after poll shows that an overwhelming majority of Americans — Republicans, as well as Democrats and Independents — believe that Social Security is more important than ever. They strongly oppose any and all cuts. They want to see benefits expanded. And they want the wealthiest to pay their fair share.
Of course, Republicans never acknowledge that they support slashing and even ending Social Security. Instead, they offer vague platitudes, professing their love for Social Security; they attack Democratic proposals; and they seek, as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) proposes in his so-called TRUST Act, to create closed-door, smoke-filled rooms to do their dirty work without political accountability.
Or, they propose, as Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) has, to require Congress to reauthorize Social Security every five years. That would undermine the Social Security guarantee, causing enormous insecurity for millions of beneficiaries. It would offer Social Security’s opponents in Congress enormous leverage to make draconian cuts even when they are not in control, thanks to the non-constitutional requirement of 60 votes in the Senate for nearly everything.
In true Orwellian fashion, Scott proposes, as part of his plan, “Force Congress to issue a report every year telling the public what they plan to do when Social Security and Medicare go bankrupt.” It is as if he is not part of Congress, at all. In truth, Social Security cannot go bankrupt but it is projecting a manageable shortfall, still over a decade away. The Democrats have put several plans on the table. What is your plan, Sen. Scott?
Republican efforts to hide their desire to cut benefits were on full display at last week’s Senate Budget Committee hearing on Social Security.
On the same day as the hearing, Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and six of their colleagues introduced the Social Security Expansion Act. That legislation increases benefits by $200 a month for current and future beneficiaries. Among other provisions, it updates the minimum benefit, so no one will retire into poverty after a lifetime of work. It also updates the way the cost-of-living adjustment is calculated to make it more accurate — so important in this time of high inflation.
The Social Security Expansion Act pays for every penny of those benefit increases. It completely eliminates Social Security’s projected shortfall, so that all benefits will be paid in full and on time for the next three quarters of a century and beyond.
How does it accomplish all of this? Not by crouching in the shadows. It openly proposes requiring those with incomes over $250,000 to pay their fair share.
During the hearing, Republican senators were eager to state their opposition to the Social Security Expansion Act. Romney proudly proclaimed, “This bill has no chance whatsoever of receiving a single Republican vote in either House.”
So what do Romney and his fellow Republicans propose instead? The so-called TRUST Act: A commission, whose recommendations would be unamendable, subject to a simple up-or-down vote, that Romney wants us to trust with our earned benefits.
Disingenuously, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) suggested a Senate vote pitting the Social Security Expansion Act against the TRUST Act. These are not in any way comparable measures. One is a comprehensive plan for Social Security’s future, the other is a cowardly retreat behind closed doors.
During the hearing, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) politely but forcefully called out the hypocrisy which all could see:
“What Sen. Sanders has done is put together a plan. On the table, open to everybody firing at it. if people don’t like it, they can say why they don’t like it. But it seems to me the beginning of this conversation needs to be an alternative plan from our Republican colleagues. Put your plan on the table so we can discuss it. Not something discussed behind closed doors.”
The last Republican to offer a substantive bill was the late Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas). He introduced his proposal in the lame duck session, when he was retiring. How many co-sponsors did he get? None.
Why? Because the bill was transparent and honest. It slashed benefits while transforming the program from wage insurance where benefits are related to earnings to a program where benefits are low and subsistence level for all. Revealingly, the Johnson plan cuts benefits by a larger amount and a decade and a half sooner than if Congress took no action whatsoever.
This plan isn’t just a relic of 2016. Sixteen Republicans from extremely safe congressional districts have just released a budget that essentially incorporates the Johnson Social Security plan, massively slashing Social Security benefits (notwithstanding that Social Security, by law, is not part of the federal budget, but its own, self-funded pension plan).
They call for a vote on the entire budget. If they really mean what they say, they should introduce their Social Security plan as a stand-alone bill. Then, the House should vote on competing proposals for Social Security: The Republican plan to cut benefits, and Rep. John Larson’s (D-Conn.) plan to expand benefits.
Larson is the author of the Social Security 2100 Act, which is co-sponsored by over 200 of his colleagues. Like the Sanders bill, the Larson bill provides an across-the-board benefit increase, and a number of targeted increases. It pays for every penny of improvement, and cuts the projected shortfall in half. It does all of this by requiring only those earning over $400,000 to pay more.
The public deserves to know where their representatives stand before they head to the polls in November. If I were the Speaker, I would issue a public challenge to the 16 conservative Republicans: Introduce your Social Security proposal as legislation, and let’s have a vote on it and the Larson bill, head-to-head.
I would be surprised, though, if the Republicans accepted the challenge. They know that, while their donors would be happy, their voters would not.
Nancy Altman is president of Social Security Works.
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