GOP House Budget Fray’s Nation’s Safety Net

Published in the Woonsocket Call on June 24, 2018

Just six months ago, the Republican-controlled House passed their massive $1.5 trillion tax cuts for the nation’s largest corporations and to the wealthiest 1 percent. The day of reckoning has now come as the GOP spells out how it will rein in the nation’s spiraling deficit through its recently released FY 2019 budget resolution. On Tuesday, the House Budget Committee unveiled its 85-page budget resolution, making trillions in spending cuts to Medicare and Medicaid, he nation’s two largest entitlement programs, health care, and programs benefiting veterans, students and working families. ‘

The budget titled, “A Brighter American Future,” calls for $8.1 trillion of deficit reduction while including reconciliation instructions for 11 House authorizing committees to enact at least $302 billion over nine years. Consistent with levels signed into law in February 2018, this budget sets topline discretionary spending at $1.24 trillion ($647 billion for defense spending and $597 billion for non-defense discretionary spending).

The budget blueprint cleared the House Budget Committee by a partisan vote of 21-13, with a vote, with a Democratic and Republican lawmaker absent from the vote. Political insiders Fortunately, Capitol Hill-watchers say the 2019 House GOP Budget proposal is unlikely to make it before the full House or pass this year. But, it sends a message out to voters about the Republican’s legislative priorities to rein in a skyrocketing deficits and debt by slashing entitlement and popular domestic programs.

Putting the Wealthy and Powerful Ahead

When unveiling the House GOP’s budget, Chairman Steve Womack of Arkansas, notes that it addresses “unsustainable mandatory spending, continues economic growth, encourages better government and greater accountability, and empowers state and local governments.”

During a CNBC interview on June 22, 2018, Womack said, “We have done our job and it is a reflection of what we believe is the stark reality of the fiscal condition of our country right, unstable deficits year over year and $21 trillion in debt that is going to continue to grow over time. We just felt like it was time to sound the alarm and do something about and this and this particular budget resolution does it.”
Democratic Policy and Communications Committee Co-Chair David N. Cicilline counters Womack’s rosy assessment of the House GOP budget. ““If a budget is a statement of your values, then this budget shows Republicans are putting the wealthy and powerful ahead of working people. Just a few months after passing a massive tax cut for billionaires and corporate special interests, Republicans are proposing to repeal the Affordable Care Act; cut funding for road repairs and other infrastructure projects; cripple Medicare and Social Security; make deep cuts to Pell grants; and repeal Dodd-Frank so the big banks can do whatever they want once again. In fact, this budget is so terrible, it’s hard to imagine Republicans will ever bring it to the floor,” says the Rhode Island lawmaker.

“But despite an extraordinary past and a booming economy thanks to tax reform, there are real fiscal challenges casting a shadow of doubt on the nation’s future, including $21 trillion of debt that is rapidly on the rise. We must overcome the challenges,” says Womack.

Womack says that his budget plan “offers a balanced and responsible plan to not only address the challenges but give rise to the nation’s prosperity.”

Medicare and Medicaid on Budgetary Chopping Block

Numerous federal programs affecting old Americans would be put on the budgetary chopping block, which includes another call for full repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), leaving 23 million Americans without health coverage. $5.4 trillion of cuts would come from mandatory or automatic spending programs such as Medicare and Medicaid. The plan calls for raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67, as well as combining Medicare Parts A and B, and allowing for privatization of the entitlement program. The projected cuts for Medicare alone add up to $537 billion.

The GOP’s efforts to privatize Medicare runs counter to what Americans want, preserving the program in its current form. The Kaiser Family Foundation released poll results in 2015, celebrating Medicare’s 50th Anniversary, the respondents by a margin of more than two to one, do not want to see their traditional Medicare privatized.

As to Medicaid, a joint federal and state program that helps with medical costs for some people with limited income and resources, the GOP budget plan limits per capita payments and allows states to turn it into a block grant. It also introduces stricter work requirements for beneficiaries and shifting to a capped system linked to medical inflation rates, these changes cutting about $1.5 trillion. Additionally, Womack’s budget would no longer allow people on Social Security disability to receive unemployment insurance at the same time, slashing $4 billion for the FY 2019 budget.

Outside of mandatory spending programs, the budget would cut trillions from “welfare,” federal retirement programs and veterans programs, while overhauling rules for medical liability lawsuits.

“This budget proposal is a direct attack on the quality of life of America’s seniors,” said Robert Roach, Jr., President of the Alliance of Retired Americans. “We must hold our elected officials accountable for their actions. We predicted cuts to our hard-earned benefits after the GOP passed their unfunded tax cuts for billionaires and corporations. Unfortunately, that reality is now staring us in the face,” he says.

Adds Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, “Speaker Ryan is obviously making good on his promise to come after safety net programs to pay for the reckless Trump/GOP tax reform. In so doing, he and his party are sending a clear message: older, poorer, and disabled Americans are not as important as the billionaires and big corporations who are the main beneficiaries of a tax scheme that is blowing up our nation’s debt.”

Before the House Budget Committee vote, Joyce A. Rogers, AARP’s Senior Vice President Government Affairs, urged that Medicare not be cut. She called for good changes such as “reducing prescription drugs costs, enhancing payment and delivery reforms, and addressing the widespread fraud, waste, and abuse in the program.”

According to Rogers, “The typical senior, with an annual income of approximately $26,000 and already spending one out of every six dollars on health care, counts on Social Security for the majority of their income, and on Medicare for access to affordable health coverage.”

Finally, Rogers notes that the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) plays vital role in providing nutritional assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families, many seniors. “In 2016, 8.7 million (over 40 percent of) SNAP households had at least one adult age 50 or older. Proposals to block grant the program, or expand work requirements, will make SNAP less responsive and accessible in times of need,” she says.

Educate Yourself About the Issues

With the upcoming Rhode Island primary on September 12, and midterm elections just 135 days, AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell urges all registered Rhode Island voters to review candidates’ positions on the issues and go to the polls and cast your ballot. “The 2018 midterms will be among the most historic elections in a generation,” she said.

Nationwide, the balance of power in both houses of Congress, as well as in many state legislatures and governorships, could shift because of the results in the fall’s general elections, says Connell.

While the most common way to vote is for registered voters to go to their local polling place on Election Day, Connell said that many family caregivers and others who may have difficulty voting on that day may be eager to take advantage of other methods of casting a ballot.

“With all that unpaid family caregivers have on their plates each day, it can often be hard for them to get to the polls on Election Day,” said Connell. “If a caregivers’ loved one is voting, it can be even harder, especially if their loved one has mobility issues. When available, alternative methods of casting a ballot (a mail ballot) are essential to allowing our state’s family caregivers and others to participate in this important election.” To learn more about mail ballots, visit https://vote.sos.ri.gov/

To mobilize it’s 35 million members, AARP has launched “Be the Difference. Vote,” a campaign designed to maximize the political influence of over age 50 voters. The initiative seeks to get the largest possible turnout of older voters to the polls during the ongoing primaries and in the November general election. It will also put front and center issues like Medicare security and family caregiving, along with other topics of particular interest to older voters.

To learn more about “Be the Difference. Vote,” check out aarp.org/vote to see how to get involved and state informed.

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Social Security, Medicare Are Solvent…at least for Now

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 16, 2017

Just days ago, a released annual federal report, the 2017 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds, says the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs continue to work, are fiscally solvent, but future fixes will be needed to maintain their long-term actuarial balance.

The Social Security Administration’s (SSA) annual snap shot of the fiscal health of Social Security and Medicare, two of the nation’s largest entitlement programs, released on July 13, is important to millions of beneficiaries. According to the federal agency, in 2017 over 62 million Americans (retired, disabled and survivors) received income from programs administered by SSA, receiving approximately $955 billion in Social Security benefits.

The Good News

The trustee’s report projects that Social Security will be financially solvent until 2034 (unchanged from last year), after which SSA can pay 77 percent of benefits if there are no changes in the program. The 269-page report also noted that the Medicare Trust Fund for hospital care has sufficient funds to cover its obligations until 2029, one year longer than projected last year, then 88 percent afterward if nothing is done to strengthen the system’s finances

The trustees report says that there is now $2.847 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $35.2 billion more than last year — and that it will continue to grow by payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund’s assets.

Social Security Administration efficiently manages its entitlement program, says the trustee report. The cost of $6.2 billion to administer to program in 2016 was a very low 0.7 percent of the total agency’s expenditures.

The trustee’s project a 2.2 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for Social Security beneficiaries in 2018, the largest increase in years. In addition, Medicare Part B premiums will also remain unchanged next year. Most beneficiaries pay a monthly premium of $134 (this amount increases for those with higher incomes.)

Social Security is “Stable and Healthy for Now”

According to the National Committee to Preserve Social Security (NCPSSM), the recently released trustee’s report confirms that the federal entitlement program is “stable and healthy for now,” while acknowledging there will be future challenges if “corrective action is not taken.”

“Forty percent of seniors (and 90 percent unmarried seniors) rely on Social Security for all or most of their income. The average monthly retirement benefit of $1,355 is barely enough to meet basic needs, and the Trustees’ latest projected cost-of-living increase of 2.2 percent will not keep pace with seniors’ true expenses. Under these circumstances, any benefit cuts (including raising the retirement age to 70 as some propose) would be truly painful for our nation’s retirees,” says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s president and CEO, in a statement responding to the release of the federal report.

“Opponents of Social Security may once again try to use this report as an excuse to cut benefits, including raising the retirement age,” warns Max Richtman. “We must, instead, look to modest and manageable solutions that will keep Social Security solvent well into the future without punishing seniors and disabled Americans,” he says.

Depending on what the final Senate health bill looks like, the legislation could reduce the solvency of Medicare by two years, say Richtman. “The National Committee opposes the GOP health plan and rejects efforts to privatize Medicare. We advocate innovation and continuing efficiencies in the delivery of care, allowing Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices, and restoring rebates the pharmaceutical companies used to pay the federal government for drugs prescribed to “dual-eligibles” (those who qualify for both Medicare and Medicaid) – in order to keep Medicare in sound financial health,” he says.

Safeguarding and Expanding Social Security Benefits

In a statement, Richard Fiesta, Executive Director of the Washington, DC-based Alliance of Retired Americans, notes that the Trustees project that the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) trust will be fully solvent until 2028, five years longer than last year’s report. “In light of this data, it makes no sense that the President’s FY 2018 budget seeks to cut Social Security Disability Insurance funding by $63 billion,” he says.

Despite the trustees’ strong report, Fiesta believes that improvements can be made that would benefit all workers and retirees. His organization supports safeguarding and expanding Social Security benefits, providing a more accurate formula for cost-of-living adjustments, and lifting the cap on earnings for the wealthiest Americans.

Fiesta adds, “reining in the prices of prescription drugs would strengthen Medicare for the future and reduce costs to retirees.”

AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins, in a statement, calls for bipartisan action in Congress and the Trump administration to ensure the strong fiscal health of Social Security and Medicare programs. “Social Security should remain separate from the budget. Medicare can improve if we reduce the overall cost of health care, rather than impose an age tax, and if we lower prescription costs, instead of giving tax breaks to drug and insurance companies,” she says.

Finally, in a statement, Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works, also chairing the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, says that this year’s trustee’s report clearly indicates that the nation can fully afford an expanded Social Security. Altman says that polling continues to show that Americans support expanding the program’s benefits.

Altman believes the Social Security program can solve the nation’s “looming retirement income crisis, the increasing economic squeeze on middle-class families, and the perilous and growing income and wealth inequality.” So, when confronting these challenges, she says, “the question is not how can we afford to expand Social Security, but, rather, how can we afford not to expand it.”

Ensuring the Long-Term Solvency of Social Security

Those nearing retirement or retired will be assured existing Social Security benefits, promises the 2016 Republican Party Platform. “Of the many reforms being proposed, all options should be considered to preserve Social Security. As Republicans, we oppose tax increases and believe in the power of markets to create wealth and to help secure the future of our Social Security system,” says the Platform. Simply put, the GOP opposes the raising of payroll taxes on higher income taxpayers to stabilize or expand Social security and supports privatization, allowing Wall Street to control your Social Security benefits.

On the other hand, last year’s Democratic Party Platform opposed Social Security cuts, privatization or the weakening of the retirement program, along with GOP attempts to raise the retirement age, slash benefits by cutting cost-of-living adjustments, or reducing earned benefits. The Democratic Platform called for taxing people making above $250,000 will bring additional funding into the entitlement program.

Congressional gridlock has not blocked legislation from being introduced to fix the nation’s Social Security program. According to Social Security Works, over 20 Social Security expansion bills have been introduced in the House and Senate since 2015. Recently, the Social Security 2100 Act, introduced by Rep. John Larson (D-CT), has 162 House cosponsors —around 85 percent of all Democratic representatives. Similarly, around 90 percent of Senate Democrats are on record in favor of expanding, not cutting Social Security.

Many consider Social Security to be the “third rail of a nations politics.” Wikipedia notes that this metaphor comes from the high-voltage third rail in some electric railway systems. Stepping on it usually results in electrocution and the use of the term in the political arena refers to “political death.” With the Social Security and Medicare programs now on firm financial footing, it is now time for Congress to seriously consider legislative actions to ensure the longevity and expansion of these programs. When the dust settles after the upcoming November 2018 elections, we’ll see if Social Security is truly “a third rail.”