Published in Pawtucket Times & Woonsocket
Call, October 18, 2013
Worried Americans woke up to good news yesterday morning. After weeks of political bickering Congress had finally hammered out a political compromise, one that would keep the nation from free-falling off the fiscal cliff.
Over the weeks, Democrats and political pundits had warned that not raising the nation’s debt ceiling by Oct. 17 could lead to the nation’s credit rating being downgraded. If this occurred, average Americans might see higher interest rates for mortgages, car loans, student loans and even credit cards. Higher business expenses, due to expensive borrowing rates, could even force businesses to stop hiring and start laying people off. Housing prices would drop and retail sales slow.
Because of Congressional gridlock, furloughed federal workers, along with the unemployed, would have less money to spend, reinforcing the negative impact on the nation’s economy.
House GOP leadership, catering to its Tea Party allies, led a political impasse between the Democratic-led Senate and President Obama, with demands that the president’s signature “Obamacare” healthcare law be defunded.
But, on the heels of an 11th hour deal, late Wednesday evening, the Senate passed, 81 to 18, a bipartisan temporary fix, supported by a large majority of Senate Republicans, ending the partial federal government shutdown and the threat of default. Hours later, the Tea Party-controlled House conceded to the political reality that any attempt to derail the Senate compromise would have a serious backlash against the GOP brand, passing the measure by 285 to 144.
On day 16 of the closing of the federal government, President Obama with the flick of his pen signed the bill ending the threat of the nation defaulting on paying its bills along with allowing hundreds of thousands of federal workers to return to their jobs.
This agreement raised the U.S. debt ceiling until Feb. 7 and gave the Treasury Department flexibility to temporarily extend its borrowing if Congress does not act before that date. Also, the measure keeps the federal government’s doors open until Jan. 15.
At the end of the Congressional vote, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and his House Tea Party allies saw their efforts fail to delay or to scrap “Obamacare.” However, the GOP Senator did get lawmakers to make a tiny political concession to require the government to verify the eligibility of people receiving federal subsidies under the health care program.
Domestic Entitlements on Chopping Block
Of concern to aging groups, the agreement calls for creating a 12 member House-Senate bipartisan panel that would identify long-term deficit cuts, either overhauling the nation’s tax code or by identifying cuts in entitlement programs like Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security. The panel, led by Budget Committee heads Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, is charged with completing its task by December 13, but they are not required to come to an agreement.
“While Washington’s latest self-imposed crisis is over, this is no time to celebrate as another set of random deadlines loom, says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, remarking “Here we go again.”
“Yet another committee has been formed in which Social Security and Medicare are the big bargaining chips on Washington’s political poker table, noted Richtman, making it clear for him the “economic security of millions of Americans isn’t a game” .
“And while the vast majority of the American people do not support cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits, the President and some in Congress appear ready to do just that through proposals like the Chained CPI, expanding Medicare means testing to the middle class and raising the retirement age,” warns Richtman.
According to Richtman, President Obama stated “what’s good for the American people” is what should guide this next debate. “Cutting benefits to millions of middle-class Americans who took the biggest hit in the recession clearly does not fit that stated goal,” he says.
In a letter to Congress, Richtman, called for other ways to rein in the nation’s budget huge deficient rather than putting Social Security on the chopping block. Richtman suggests that “instead of cutting benefits, comprehensive reforms in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that are containing costs in the entire health care sector, including Medicare and Medicaid, ought to be given a chance to work and to be strengthened.”
“Moreover, Social Security does not face an immediate crisis and is not driving either the short-term deficit or long-term debt. We believe Social Security should be strengthened for the long-term by raising the current payroll tax cap on earnings,” adds Richtman.
AARP, the nation’s largest aging advocacy group, was quick to comment on the bipartisan-brokered legislative deal, saying that “AARP is pleased that the President and Congress temporarily averted an economic crisis that threatened our members’ access to Social Security and Medicare, but we are deeply concerned that harmful cuts to these vital programs are on the table for a new round of budget negotiations.”
The statement acknowledges that “some Congressional lawmakers want to trade cuts to Medicare and Social Security benefits to pay for other government spending. Others are calling for cuts to these vital programs to reduce the deficit.” However, according to AARP polls, “the American people, on the other hand, across all ages and party lines, are strongly opposed to cuts to Social Security and Medicare.”
“Whether it is cutting their programs to reduce the deficit or using them as a piggy bank to pay for other government spending, their message to the President and Congress is clear: “Don’t bargain away my Medicare and Social Security benefits,” says the AARP statement.
As the House/Senate Bipartisan Committee begins to organize, AARP is preparing to mobilize its massive membership to block any attempts to slash Social Security bennies or cut Medicare, specifically through a Chained CPI to determine cost of living increases and any reductions in Medicare benefits.
Susan Sweet, a well-known aging advocate clearly sees that a Congressional tinkering with Social Security could severely hit the pocketbooks of older Rhode Islanders. She asks, “Is it too much to ask that seniors, disabled people and veterans not pay the price of huge farm subsidies for agribusiness corporations, disgraceful and unnecessary tax benefits for gargantuan oil companies that are making their biggest profits ever, and wasteful pentagon spending for projects in war zones that are either never built or are soon destroyed?”
She calls on Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation to “stay strong and not compromise on keeping Medicare and Social Security fulfill its promises to seniors, disabled people and veterans by keeping benefits at current levels.”
“Dollars to cut the federal deficit might just come from extra revenues which could be generated from allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies and lifting the Social Security payroll tax cap so that wealthy people pay the same rate as middle class and poor people,“ she says.
AARP Gears Up for a Fight
This week AARP launched a series of radio and print ads opposing a Chained CPI Social Security benefit cut and harmful cuts to Medicare in the nonprofit organization’s latest discussion of the nation’s fiscal issues. The print and radio ads target members of the House and Senate in 18 states. The ads follow letters to Congress and the White House, as well as postcards, e-mails and calls to members of Congress opposing a budget deal that would balance the budget on the backs of older Americans.
“Americans have paid into Medicare and Social Security and they’re tired of their hard-earned benefits being used as bargaining chips in another last-minute budget deal,” said AARP Senior Vice President Joyce Rogers. “They deserve responsible solutions that will strengthen Medicare and Social Security now and for future generations, not harmful cuts that will hurt all of us.”
Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. His weekly commentaries can be found on his blog, herbweiss.wordpress.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.