Social Security advocates have quietly scored major victories on the campaign trail in recent weeks that could have major implications for long-term efforts to control the debt.
While House Speaker Paul Ryan and other congressional Republican leaders vowed last week to renew efforts to balance the budget in the coming decade through stringent spending cuts and entitlement reforms, liberal Democratic efforts to preserve and expand Social Security are gaining traction in the presidential sweepstakes.
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First, former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton bowed to the demands of progressive Democrats a week ago and joined Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in pledging to oppose cuts in the national retirement program and support an expansion of benefits for Americans across the board.
“I won’t cut Social Security,” Clinton wrote Feb. 5 in a tweet in response to Sanders’ criticism of her for hanging back in taking a tough stand. “As always, I’ll defend it, & I’ll expand it. Enough false innuendos.”
While Clinton’s pledge didn’t fully satisfy Sanders, her rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, she drew praise from the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Social Security Works, organizations that had waged an on-line petition drive to convince Clinton to support efforts to expand Social Security benefits, according to the Huffington Post.
"This is a huge victory for American seniors," PCCC co-founder Stephanie Taylor said in a statement. "Hillary Clinton took cuts to Social Security off the table.”
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More striking by far was Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s unconditional vow to oppose cuts in Social Security and Medicare during last Saturday night’s GOP presidential debate in Greenville, S.C.
Trump has shown a willingness to diverge from Republican Party orthodoxy on a host of issues, including trade and higher taxes on Wall Street hedge fund operators. He has chosen to take a populist stand on entitlement reform and promised again during the debate to oppose cuts in Social Security and Medicare and “take care of people on the street dying.”
Previously Trump declared, “Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they want to do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid. And we can’t do that. And it’s not fair to the people that have been paying in for years and now all of the sudden they want to be cut.”
The bottom line is that the nearly unstoppable Republican presidential frontrunner and the two remaining Democratic candidates are now essentially singing from the same hymnal on entitlement reform. That is an important development for the champions of expanded entitlement spending and bad news for fiscal conservative who fear a return to soaring budget deficits and debt.
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Last week, the Republican chairs of the House and Senate Budget Committees refused to allow Office of Management and Budget Director Shaun Donovan testify on President Obama’s fiscal 2017 budget proposal because they said it wasn’t serious enough about tackling the deficit.
If Congress and the White House remain on the current spending trajectory without addressing rising entitlement costs as more and more Americans retire, the deficit will increase sharply after 2018, spiking from 2.9 percent of Gross Domestic Product to 4.9 percent by 2026, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.
Budget watchdog groups including the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget said that while Obama should get credit for suggesting offsets for many of his proposed domestic spending initiatives in the final year of his administration, he missed an important opportunity to address entitlement spending – the long-term drivers of the deficit and debt.
Trump, as usual, has been vague in describing his commitment to shield Social Security from cuts. Sanders and Clinton have been far more specific, including forcing higher income Americans to pay more into the system by raising the income cap on Social Security taxes.
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At present, the payroll taxes that fund Social Security are imposed on the first $118,500 of an individual’s earnings. Sanders sponsored a bill that would eliminate the cap on earnings of $250,000 or more. By doing so, Sanders says he would both increase retirement benefits across the board and extend the trust fund’s solvency.
According to Clinton’s campaign website, the former secretary of state and New York senator would “preserve Social Security for decades to come by asking the wealthiest to contribute more.” She also vowed that she wouldn’t attempt to address Social Security trust fund solvency “on the backs of the middle class,” either through benefit cuts or tax increases.”