A group of left-leaning Senators rallied on Capitol Hill Monday to quash the possibility that Social Security cuts or other changes to the entitlement would be included in any near-term deficit reduction package.
Led by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Al Franken, D-Minn., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., argued that Social Security faces no immediate financial danger and is not to blame for the ballooning deficit.
“Social Security has not contributed one penny to the debt or the deficit,” Reid said to a cheering crowd of advocates, labor leaders, and program recipients waving signs that bore the slogan: Hands off Social Security! “It’s in great shape for the next many decades. Let’s worry about Social Security when it’s a problem — today it’s not a problem,” Reid said.
The threat of Social Security cuts has intensified on the Hill as lawmakers wrestle with how to fund the federal government through the rest of the year. The spending bill that passed the Republican-controlled House last month cut the Social Security Administration’s budget by $1.7 billion. Additionally, two blue-ribbon Congressional commissions endorsed raising the retirement age to help rein in the long-term deficit. Liberal Democrats and retirement program activists are becoming more vocal now that Social Security is publicly on the table.
The rally follows Reid’s remarks on MSNBC last week that he would only be open to changing the program in 20 years, as well as an amendment he introduced with Sanders prohibiting the Senate from cutting or privatizing Social Security in crafting deficit-reduction legislation.
Harkin and Franken each told personal stories about how Social Security has enabled their families to get by and succeed. Harkin recounted how his mother died when he was 10 years old, leaving his then-aging mineworker father, who was disabled, to support him and his two brothers. “Imagine that you had three kids under the age of 18, no savings, no retirement, nothing but a broken body,” Harkin said.
“If it hadn’t have been for Social Security I don’t know what would have happened to my family or how we would have stayed together.” Franken told how his wife, Frannie, and her four brothers and sisters lost their father to a car accident when Frannie was 18 months old. “Sometimes they had to turn the heat off in the winter at their home in Portland, Maine; sometimes they turned the phone off, but they made it because of Social Security.” But the tenor changed when Sanders took jabs at the GOP for “hating Social Security.”
“They have this brilliant idea that they want to privatize Social Security… to raise the retirement age,” Sanders said. “Think of those guys who are banging nails today, at 70 years of age banging nails — I don’t think so!”
Blumenthal said people in his home state are “not buying [GOP] scare tactics” that Social Security is draining the Treasury. “Cutting Social Security benefits won’t reduce our deficit or debt, and the American people expect us to make smart, strategic choices about cutting spending — not to do it on the backs of our most vulnerable citizens.”
Some Senate Democrats, including Mark Warner of Virginia and Richard Durbin of Illinois, have signaled an early willingness to consider altering the retirement program as part of a longer-term budget deal. However, Durbin said the ‘Gang of Six’ senators, of which he is a part, was growing hesitant to include Social Security reforms in its plan to slash $4 trillion from the nation’s deficit over the next decade because inclusion could pose a major roadblock to garnering the 60 votes needed to pass the Senate.
House Republican leaders have said the program can’t be excluded from the deficit-reduction conversation, and have promised their upcoming fiscal 2012 budget proposal will set cost-containment goals for all three major entitlement programs. Some conservative lawmakers have taken the debate even further: Rep. Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming proposed legislation earlier this month to slowly raise the retirement age from 66 to 70 by 2075.
“Everybody is afraid to fix Social Security for fear that the wrath of the public will come down on them and they’ll lose their next election,” Lummis told The Fiscal Times. “But the fact of the matter is, if we don’t fix it, it goes broke. “
This year, Social Security will pay out more in retirement, disability and survivors’ benefits than it recoups in payroll taxes for the first time since 1983. Though positive cash flow will return in 2012, the program will fall permanently back into deficit starting in 2015, according to the program’s 2010 trustees report.
Democrats Sound Alarm (Again) on Social Security (Wall Street Journal)
Addressing Social Security May Doom Deal on Debt, Durbin Says (Bloomberg)
On Social Security, Beware of the False Progressives (Huffington Post)