Democrats must protect Social Security by raising the debt ceiling
Cutting Social Security is terrible policy and deeply unpopular. Nevertheless, Republican politicians are desperate to cut or, worse, dismember this invaluable institution. Even in the months leading up to the midterm elections, Republicans couldn’t stop themselves from talking about their plans to go after the American people’s earned Social Security benefits.
Republican politicians hate Social Security because it is a successful and popular program that puts the lie to their anti-government ideology. And their Wall Street donors, who receive no fees from Social Security, believe there is money to be made by cutting or privatizing the system.
The Republican obsession with cutting Social Security, so opposed by even the most conservative voters, helped to turn the “red wave” that Republicans anticipated into a red mirage. Blake Masters, an Arizona Senate candidate who ran on privatizing Social Security, lost to Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly. Similarly, Don Bolduc, a New Hampshire Senate candidate who ran on cutting and privatizing both Social Security and Medicare, was crushed by Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan.
Even Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), darling of the MAGA Republicans, came within one percentage point of losing his seat — his closest election by far — when he said that he wanted to convert Social Security and Medicare from guaranteed earned benefits into “discretionary spending” (Washington-speak for cutting benefits).
Unfortunately, even though Democrats retained control of the Senate and the House is closely divided, those determined Republicans have a plan to get their way: Threaten to wreck the global economy, unless Democrats meet their demands.
They plan to take the economy hostage by refusing to lift the debt ceiling, thus undermining the full faith and credit of the United States and creating worldwide chaos.
What ransom would Republicans demand in return for releasing this hostage? Cuts to our earned Social Security and Medicare benefits.
We know that Republicans plan to do this because they’ve told us explicitly and repeatedly. Last month, every Republican who is in contention to lead the House Budget Committee told Bloombergthat they plan to demand Social Security and Medicare cuts in return for raising the debt limit.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who is likely the incoming Speaker of the House of Representatives and therefore in a position to make good on the threat, has been clear that he will not simply allow a so-called clean debt ceiling vote; rather, he will demand concessions from Democrats.
Asked explicitly if he would support taking the debt ceiling hostage to demand cuts to so-called “entitlements”, McCarthy cagily responded — just a few weeks before the election — that he wouldn’t “predetermine” anything. In politician-speak, that’s an emphatic “yes.”
Again, leaving no doubts, Rep. Buddy Carter (R-Ga.) said that “our main focus” has got to be on so-called “entitlements” — Washington-speak for Social Security and Medicare’s earned benefits.
And to be clear, a “compromise” of a bipartisan commission, as Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has proposed, is no compromise at all. It is simply a way to cut Social Security while avoiding political accountability.
This is by no means the first time that Republicans have engaged in this hostage-taking tactic to get their hands on Social Security. Republicans tried the same play in 2011 and 2013. Due to massive grassroots opposition, they didn’t succeed in their No. 1 goal of cutting Social Security and Medicare. But they did force draconian cuts to non-defense discretionary spending programs, which harmed millions of Americans and likely contributed to a slower economic recovery from the Great Recession.
The good news is that Democrats can protect our earned Social Security from Republican plans to force cuts. But they must act in this Congress, while Democrats still control the House and can use the reconciliation process — which allows the Democratic majority in the Senate to enact legislation without Republican support.
Democrats should lift (or better yet, eliminate) the debt limit before the end of the year. That will protect Social Security, Medicare, and other vital programs from today’s radical congressional Republicans.
Raising the debt ceiling now by using reconciliation, which avoids calamitous brinkmanship next year, has wide support in the Democratic Party. Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), who has close ties with the Biden administration, led a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) calling for Congress to raise or eliminate the debt ceiling during the final session. The letter was signed by a broad cross-section of House Democrats, including both moderates and progressives.
Pelosi and Schumer have expressed support for raising the debt limit in the final session, as has the Biden administration — including senior White House officials and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. Prominent economists, including Jason Furman, Paul Krugman, and Mark Zandi are also calling on Democrats to raise or eliminate the debt limit.
During the midterms, Democrats ran on a promise to protect Social Security and Medicare from Republican plans to cut benefits. Now, it’s time for them to keep that promise.
Every political leader who supports Social Security should make raising or eliminating the debt ceiling before the end of the year their top priority. If and when it is brought to a vote, politicians should understand: Social Security advocates see a vote against raising or eliminating the debt ceiling as a vote to cut their voters’ earned benefits — and will inform those voters accordingly.
Nancy Altman is co-director of Social Security Works.