Finance

Social security emerges as latest flash point in Biden-Sanders tussle

A spat between former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) over social security has brought an issue long considered a sacred cow for Democrats to the forefront of the 2020 race. 

The two leading Democratic contenders have in recent days lobbed attacks against each other on social security, as they both engage in an intensifying battle for the nomination with just over a week left before the Iowa caucus.

Social security is an especially important issue for older Democratic voters, which has emerged as an important base of support for Biden, as experts warn the program faces insolvency in coming years.  

The attacks have been hard and personal: the Biden campaign has accused Sanders of running misleading ads on positions the former senator and vice president took as recently as 2018 and as far back as 1984.

For example, a campaign email from Sanders noted that "Biden lauded [former GOP House Speaker] Paul Ryan for proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare."

But in the speech, delivered at Brookings in April 2018, Biden was mocking the GOP position on reducing the deficit when he referenced Ryan.

"Now, we need to do something about Social Security and Medicare," Biden said, adding in a hushed, sarcastic tone to portray Ryan's position: "That's the only way you can find room to pay for it."

Another Sanders ad replays 15-year-old audio of Biden discussing a 1984 plan to freeze all federal spending, including Social Security.

The 1984 plan, a response to the deficit-financed Reagan tax cuts, was known at the time as the KGB plan, for its three co-sponsors, Sen. Nancy Landon Kassebaum (R-Kansas), Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Biden.

It would have cut $100 billion from the deficit by instituting an across-the-board spending freeze, preventing cost-of-living increases to Social Security and Medicare as well as increases in defense and domestic spending.

Biden argued then, and has reiterated since, that soaring deficits would lead to GOP calls to slash entitlement programs such as Social Security as well as discretionary spending, and therefore that it was better to act to keep deficits down.

"If we fail to act decisively on deficits, if we allow the economy to come crashing down, this future agenda of the administration may well be only the beginning. We will be facing draconian measures in all aspects of budget, indeed in all aspects of our lives," he said in 1984 of the plan, which did not pass.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) frequently has made the same arguments, accusing Republicans of running up deficits with tax cuts, then seeking to cut entitlements because of those high deficits.

Sanders's ad, however, appears to muddle Biden's stance by making it seem as if he was planning to slash benefits, rather than arresting cost-of-living increases.

Biden's campaign shot back against Sanders's portrayals, calling the claims "dishonest."

"We can't launch dishonest attacks against fellow Democrats. We have to beat Donald Trump," one video said.

"Bernie's negative attacks won't change the truth," the ad concluded.

The back-and-forth comes as both candidates have staked out somewhat different positions on social security.

Sanders has consistently called for expanding the entitlement programs such as social security as well as benefits, promising to raise money by increasing taxes on the wealthy and on corporations. 

Meanwhile, Biden has also argued for an expansion of social security, though he has also frequently called for "grand bargains" that would sacrifice Republican sacred cows by raising taxes and also Democratic ones by addressing, in some form, the unsustainable elements of Social Security.

That willingness to compromise and work with Republicans is often touted as an attractive asset by some of Biden supporters, but it has been less well received by progressives who support Sanders. 

For example, in a 1995 debate over a balanced budget constitutional amendment, Biden railed against provisions that could have put Social Security on the chopping block and backed an amendment to keep Social Security separate.

But after the amendment failed, Biden still voted for the overall bill, which fell short in the Senate by one vote.

Social security has so far not emerged as a top issue in the 2020 race, though that could change given the growing alarm about the health of the program: a report in April from the Social Security Trust Fund found that it was due to run out by 2034, and that benefits would see a 25 percent cut the following year without action.

The deficit, in the meantime, has climbed to nearly $1 trillion on the back of GOP tax cuts and bipartisan deals to boost both defense and domestic spending.

The Congressional Budget Office said the debt is on an "unsustainable" path and projects that interest payments will eclipse defense spending in the coming decades.

President Trump weighed in on social security on Thursday, saying in a tweet, "Democrats are going to destroy your Social Security. I have totally left it alone, as promised, and will save it!"

The tweet was sent after Democrats seized on an interview in which he indicated he would be open to cutting entitlement programs down the road.

Budget watchers complain that few politicians in either party have shown the appetite to tackle the deficit in a meaningful way, given that promising tax cuts and higher spending on popular programs delivers votes more reliably than advocating for fiscal responsibility.

"Three of our nation's most important programs - Social Security, Medicare and highway trust funds - are heading toward insolvency, a situation the numbers clearly bear out but our lawmakers have continued to ignore," Maya Macguineas, president of the budget watchdog Center for a Responsible Federal Budget recently wrote in The Hill.

"Seeking bipartisan solutions to serious problems and enacting them is a crucial remedy to heal our ailing political culture," she added.

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