There was a lot for seniors to cheer on the result of the midterm elections. Voters rejected many candidates who supported harmful proposals to “reform” Social Security and Medicare, including high-profile Republican challengers Blake Masters in Arizona and Don Bolduc in New Hampshire (whose defeats helped Democrats retain their Senate majority). In fact, more than 70 of the House and Senate candidates we supported as “champions for seniors” came out victorious. It’s not hard to say that, alongside strong messages about the importance of democracy and reproductive rights, millions of voters said loud and clear: Hands off our Social Security and Medicare! That’s the good news.
Unfortunately, a party that never fully supported Social Security and health care from the very beginning won the bare minimum of seats needed to take control of the House in January. During the campaign, Republicans weren’t shy about divulging their plans for seniors’ earned benefits: to raise the ages, privatize both programs, and hold them hostage in debt ceiling negotiations.
We have to take the Republicans at their word that this is the policy they will pursue, albeit with a slim majority in the House. In January, Republicans will chair the powerful House Ways and Means and Budget committees, which have enormous influence over Social Security and Medicare policies. The GOP can use these committees as pulpits to promote proposals that could undermine the financial and health security of older Americans. Indeed, the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee will be chaired by a fiscal conservative instead of Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), who introduced legislation to expand benefits and was a strong advocate for senior citizens in the United States Congress.
Fortunately, a majority in the Democratic Senate and President Biden have the power to block important legislation to reduce or undermine Social Security and Medicare. But they may be under immense pressure from the GOP to make concessions during debt ceiling and budget negotiations. Once again, seniors and their advocates will need to mobilize to protect Social Security and Medicare — two hugely successful programs that have insured millions of workers and their families against the challenges of disability and retirement for 87 years and 57 years, respectively.
The battles to come may be déjà vu for those who remember the Obama years, when in 2011 a new Republican House majority tried to force Democrats to accept massive cuts, including to seniors’ benefits, with the debt ceiling as a cudgel. was used. . Democratic members rejected benefit cuts as part of a debt limit deal, while Republicans refused to consider revenue increases.
The lack of a bipartisan agreement resulted in automatic spending limits on the day-to-day running of the federal government, or “discretionary spending.” While the spending caps did not directly affect Social Security, they drained the operating budget of the Social Security Administration (SSA) for more than a decade. Seniors and employees with disabilities paid the price. A woefully underfunded SSA has struggled to provide adequate customer service to the public ever since.
The 2012 presidential election campaign between President Obama and Mitt Romney brought to the fore another dangerous idea: privatization of Medicare. Turning Medicare into a voucher program was a favorite proposal of Romney’s running mate, future Speaker of the House Paul Ryan.
We launched an aggressive grassroots “Truth Tour” to warn the public that Ryan’s “Coupon Care” plan would hurt seniors by increasing their Medicare costs and would have made it more difficult for beneficiaries to choose their own doctor. It worked. Voter support for the Romney/Ryan ticket waned. As we noted at the time, “The more the American people learn about these privatization programs, the less they want them.”
Lost the Romney/Ryan ticket to President Obama, Ryan’s voucher plan stalled (though he would unsuccessfully try to revive it four years later), and seniors and their lawyers thwarted another attempt to weaken benefits for older Americans. But that delay was short-lived.
In 2013, there was another attempt at a “big deal” on spending, including a proposal to use a more stingy formula – the “Chained Consumer Price Index” – for calculating cost increases of living expenses for Social Security (COLAs). Using the Chained CPI to determine COLAs would have cost older seniors $1,400 in annual benefit cuts.
The Chained CPI proposal alarmed senior advocates. We and other groups rallied to oppose it, mobilizing our members and supporters through petitions, email campaigns and rallies – including a protest in front of the White House. This robust grassroots activity helped put the Chained CPI back where it belonged: in the dump of bad ideas. Sadly, it’s back in this year’s Republican Study Committee budget blueprint.
Democrats must maintain a united front to oppose Republican plans that jeopardize Social Security and Medicare — without wavering or capitulating. President Biden should use his veto power against harmful proposals for these programs where appropriate. He admirably vowed that he would immediately after the election, declaring, “If Republicans try to cut Social Security and Medicare, I won’t let that happen!”
But our elected leaders cannot defend the earned benefits of employees in isolation. The White House and Congress need to keep hearing from the American people that they want Social Security and Medicare to be protected: no cuts, no privatization, no eligibility increase, no Chained CPI, and no extortion of the debt ceiling. There are multiple ways to reach members of Congress – to remind our elected leaders that in the wake of a deadly pandemic that has taken a huge toll on seniors, the rising cost of retirement and lingering wealth inequality, Americans are dependent on Social Security and Medicare to retire with dignity now more than ever.
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in Washington, DC