Liberal Dems’ New Goal: Boost Social Security Benefits
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The Fiscal Times
March 18, 2014

Meet Shenna Bellows, a 38-year-old former American Civil Liberties official and economic researcher, who is challenging moderate Republican Sen. Susan Collins for her seat this fall – in part by backing a budding liberal drive to boost Social Security benefits.

An up-by-the-bootstrap Democrat who grew up in rural Maine in a low-income household that for a time lacked electricity and running water, Bellows is in the vanguard of a small group of   acolytes of liberal Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) who are trying to create a political beachhead in the 2014 midterm congressional elections.

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For many, it’s a political longshot. Nevertheless, the movement reflects a growing effort by the Democrats’ liberal wing to flex its muscle, with future implications for the 2016 presidential campaign.

The liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee has dubbed Bellows the “Elizabeth Warren of Civil Liberties,” suggesting that her sharp focus on civil liberties and privacy issues     is akin to Warren’s long-standing advocacy of consumer rights and the middle class.

While political experts rate Collins a prohibitive favorite to win a fourth term, Bellows thinks Collins may be vulnerable on NSA-related privacy issues, her continued support of the  controversial U.S. Patriot Act and her stand on Social Security reform.

Bellows is a major critic of the National Security Agency’s widespread collection of U.S. citizens’ phone data. She has repeatedly blasted Collins – a member of the Select Committee on Intelligence -- for favoring what Bellows dismisses as halfway reforms to increase NSA transparency and accountability.

Bellows’ appeal to libertarians as well as liberals on privacy issues has given her campaign some added caché, leading to speculation that she could work well in Washington with Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, a darling of libertarians, on some issues. She also recently boasted of outraising Collins in the first quarter of the campaign cycle, $331,000 to $315,000.

Related: 5 Things You Still Don't Know About Social Security   

She vigorously supports a budding drive in Congress led by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-CA) to expand Social Security benefits in the coming decades by changing the cost of living formula to favor seniors and to eliminate the current $113,700 a year cap on payroll taxes.   

“I think expanding Social Security benefits is incredibly important,” she said in an interview on Monday. “About a third of Maine’s seniors are living solely on Social Security. And the current Social Security benefits are not covering the cost of living for Maine seniors."

“Hunger is a growing problem in Maine among our seniors and it’s vitally important that we expand Social Security benefits,” she added. “And we can do it in a fiscally responsible way by scrapping the cap and making sure that higher income earners pay their fair share.”

The idea of increasing Social Security benefits for years flourished only on the outer fringes of the left and in the blogosphere, as lawmakers worried about the deficit and the long-term solvency of major entitlement programs. A trustees report last spring warned that without change, the Social Security trust funds will be insolvent in 2033 and the disability trust fund will be exhausted by 2016.

Related: Social Security, Medicare Still Face the Abyss

With fewer people qualifying for traditional defined-benefit pensions, governments cutting back on pension benefits, and ordinary families facing risks and difficulties in saving enough for retirement through 401(k)s and IRAs, liberal Democrats began arguing that seniors were entitled to a modest raise in benefits.

"Just one year ago, Democrats were stuck in defense, constantly defending Social Security benefits from cuts," said Laura Friedenbach, press secretary for Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "We're now at a turning point -- progressives are united and going on offense."

The movement got an added push recently after President Obama abandoned a proposal popular with Republicans and government spending watchdog groups to lower cost-of-living increases in Social Security and Medicare to insure their long-term solvency by switching to a so-called “chained CPI.”

Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon recently became the latest senator to announce his support for increasing Social Security benefits after he chaired a committee hearing on retirement security.

Related: Democrats Focus on Retirement Security

He joined Democrats Harkin, Warren, Mark Begich of Alaska, Sherrod Brown of Ohio and   independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont in backing the measure. More than 40 House members have signed on as well, including  Sanchez, Rep. Ted Deutch (D-FL), Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), and Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL). 

Begich, who first came up with the idea, is facing a tough reelection campaign this year and is likely to get push back from the GOP on his support for a measure that would raise trillions of dollars in new payroll tax revenue in the coming decades at the expense of upper income Americans. Merkley is also up for reelection, but faces a much easier reelection challenge.

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“Candidates tend to be very cautious and careful, so I applaud the ones that are going for expanded Social Security because they are showing some vision,” said Nancy Altman, co-director of Social Security Works, a large coalition of seniors, union members and women’s   advocacy groups.

She contends that broadening Social Security benefits polls well and could be an effective campaign theme if explained properly. “People have a lot of anxiety about economic security these days, and this is a solution.” While Collins has not supported the idea, she has cautioned against budget saving measures like the “chained CPI” that could reduce benefits and add to senior’s economic woes.

“Well, I think we have to be very careful as we take a look at the Social Security and Medicare programs,” she told the AARP last December. “If we change the consumer price index, we could not do so without increasing the minimum benefit for Social Security. I also think that any savings in Social Security needs to be reinvested in the Social Security program to keep it strong.”

On the campaign trail, Bellows is among half-dozen or so Democratic challengers who are pressing for the Social Security expansion as part of their platforms. Those Democrats include former Montana lieutenant governor John Bohlinger, who is running for the Senate seat recently vacated by veteran Democrat Max Baucus.

Related: Republican House Moderates Fight for Survival

Also backing Social Security expansion are the following:

  • Pennsylvania state senator Daylin Leach, who is campaigning to succeed Democratic Rep. Allyson Schwartz in a northeast Philadelphia district. 
  • Lee Rogers, a podiatrist from Simi Valley, Calif., who is running for a House seat held by retiring GOP House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard “Buck” McKeon.
  • Liberal radio talk-show host, Mark Levine, who is running in a crowded field to succeed retiring Rep. James Moran in Northern Virginia.
  • Kelly Westlund, an Ashland City Council member challenging Republican incumbent Sean Duffy in Wisconsin’s 7th Congressional district.

As executive director of Maine’s ACLU for eight years, Bellows helped build bipartisan coalitions to pass groundbreaking privacy and civil rights legislation – including a gay marriage law, a state requirement of warrants for government access to private cellphone communications and restoration of same-day voter registration.  She is also a strong advocate of legalizing marijuana.

Asked why she thinks it is time for Collins, a highly respected lawmaker and one of the few remaining moderate Republicans in the Senate to be replaced, Bellows replied:  “In the past 18 years, we have experienced an economic crisis, an environmental crisis and a constitutional crisis that threatened the country’s future. I don’t think we can expect changes in Washington if we continue with the status quo.”

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Washington Editor and D.C. Bureau Chief Eric Pianin is a veteran journalist who has covered the federal government, congressional budget and tax issues, and national politics. He spent over 25 years at The Washington Post.