Senate Health Bill Vote Expected Next Week

Published in Woonsocket Call on June 25, 2017

The long-awaited Senate health bill text crafted by a group of 13 GOP senators (all male) appointed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to replace and repeal President Obama’s Affordable Care Act of 2017 (ACA), popularly, called Obamacare, was unveiled days ago. Republican lawmakers have worked for over seven years to dismantle the Democratic president’s landmark health care law. Supporters say that ACA brought health care coverage to an estimated 20 million Americans, covered between marketplace, Medicaid expansion, young adults staying on their parent’s plan, and other coverage provisions. Critics charge that Obamacare imposed too many costs to business owners.

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senate Democrats lashed out at GOP Senate leadership charging that the Senate health bill, titled “Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017,” was written behind closed doors without a single committee hearing being held or draft bill text being circulated to the public. Some Republican senators also expressed frustration for not seeing the details of the GOP bill before its release on June 22, 2017.

Like Senate Democrats, Health and Human Secretary Tom Price was left in the dark, too. At a Senate hearing before the release of the Senate bill the Trump Administration’s top health official stated that he had not seen any legislative language.

Senate Health Bill “Meaner” than House Version

Despite President Trump’s campaign pledge not to touch popular entitlement programs, like Medicare and Medicaid, he strongly endorsed the House Republican passed health bill, the American Health Care Act of 2017 (AHCA). At the eleventh hour, Trump twisted the arms of reluctant GOOP House members to gain their support of the controversial health care bill. Celebrating the passage of AHCA at the White House Rose garden, the president told the attending Republican lawmakers and guests that the GOP health bill was a “great plan,” adding that it was “very, very, incredibly well-crafted.” It was reported weeks later, after a closed-door luncheon with 15 Republican Senators, Trump had called AHCA “mean” and urged the attending Senators make their legislative proposal “more generous.”

With the release of the Senate health bill, Senate Minority Leader Schumer called the bill “meaner” than the House passed version, stressing its negative impact was far worse than AHCA. Trump called the House health bill “mean.” Schumer views the Senate’s version “meaner.”

GOP Senate leadership is pressing for a floor vote before the upcoming July 4th Congressional recess. To meet this deadline, this vote must take place by the end of next week, either Thursday or Friday, after 20 hours of debate. Early next week the Congressional Budget Office will release its score, detailing cost and coverage impact, on the Senate health bill. Moderate Republican senators might just be influenced not to vote for the bill if reduces health coverage for millions of Americans.

It usually takes 60 votes to pass a bill in the Senate. But, GOP Senate leadership is using a technical parliamentary procedure, referred to as reconciliation, to allow the Senate health bill to pass with only 50 votes, including the Vice President as a tiebreaker.

At press time, there are four conservative senators (Rand Paul of Kentucky, Ted Cruz of Texas, Mike Lee of Utah and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin) and one moderate senator (Dean Heller of Nevada)., who have publicly expressed their opposition to the Senate health bill. With all Democratic and Independent senators in their caucus opposing passage of the bill, GOP Senate leadership can only afford the defection of two Republican senators if they want their bill to pass.

Meanwhile, a 100-year old organization, Planned Parenthood, is gearing up to fight a provision of the Senate health bill that would cut $555 million in funding. Two moderate GOP Senators, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, are on the fence voting for the bill if cuts are made to Planned Parenthood.

Aging Groups See Writing on Wall if Senate Passes Health Bill

The released 142-page GOP Senate health bill, written hastily behind closed doors, will overhaul the nation’s health care system, impacting on one-sixth of the nation’s economy. Dozens of aging, health care and medical groups, including AARP, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), the American Medical Association, and the American Hospital Association, are voicing their strong opposition to the GOP Senate’s health care fix.

And this list keeps growing as next week’s Senate vote approaches.

The Washington, DC-based AARP, representing a whopping 38 million members, vows to hold GOP Senators accountable for a bill that hurts older Americans. The nonprofit group charges that “the legislation imposes an “Age Tax” on older adults – increasing health care premiums and reducing tax credits [that made insurance more affordable under Obamacare], makes cuts to both Medicaid funding, and yet gives billions of dollars in take breaks to drug and insurance companies.”

“AARP is also deeply concerned that the Senate bill cuts Medicaid funding that would strip health coverage from millions of low-income and vulnerable Americans who depend on the coverage, including 17 million poor seniors and children and adults with disabilities. The proposed Medicaid cuts would leave millions, including our most vulnerable seniors, at risk of losing the care they need and erode seniors’ ability to live in their homes and communities,” says
AARP Executive Vice President Nancy LeaMond, in a statement.

“The Senate bill also cuts funding for Medicare which weakens the programs ability to pay benefits and leaves the door wide open to benefit cuts and Medicare vouchers. AARP has long opposed proposals that cut benefits or weaken Medicare, adds LeaMond.

LeaMond says, “As we did with all 435 Members of the House of Representatives, AARP will also hold all 100 Senators accountable for their votes on this harmful health care bill. Our members care deeply about their health care and have told us repeatedly that they want to know where their elected officials stand. We strongly urge the Senate to reject this bill.”

Another Washington-DC based organization, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, an advocacy group whose mission is to protect Social Security and Medicare, issued a stinging statement criticizing the Senate health bill.

“The Senate’s version of AHCA is an exercise in political expediency that does nothing to safeguard access to quality healthcare for older Americans. President Trump rightly called the House-passed bill ‘mean’ and lacking ‘heart.’ Unfortunately, the Senate bill is only marginally less mean in some ways, and even more heartless in others, says Max Richtman, President & CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Adds, Richtman, “The Senate health bill is “a lose-lose for seniors and the American people. The biggest loss is that the AHCA ends the Medicaid program as we know it. Astoundingly, the Senate bill makes even deeper cuts to Medicaid than the House did. This is devastating news for today’s and tomorrow’s seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s, cancer, the after-effects of stroke and other serious conditions who depend on Medicaid to pay for long-term care. Millions will lose Medicaid coverage over the next ten years.”

“Despite some tweaks to premium subsidies, the Senate legislation will make healthcare unaffordable for many near seniors aged 50-64. The legislation allows insurers to charge older Americans five times as much as younger adults. Though the Senate bill nominally protects people with pre-existing conditions, the waiver of essential benefits means older patients with pre-existing conditions like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease will pay sky-high premiums [making these premiums unaffordable to most]. Finally, the bill weakens Medicare by reducing the solvency of the Part A Trust fund,” notes Richtman.

Looking at a Crystal Ball

Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based the Brookings Institution, says that the Senate health bill does not fix the issues critics had with the House version. “It moves Medicaid from an entitlement to a discretionary program. It uses a longer phase-in period than the House, but imposes deeper cuts on the program. This is very problematic from the standpoint of poor and disabled people who need help,” says West.

According to West, Republican Senators from more moderate states already have said they will not support the current version. There also are conservative Senators who feel the bill does not go far enough in repealing Obamacare. If those positions hold up, it doesn’t look like the bill will pass.

West warns those who oppose the passage of the Senate health bill to not underestimate Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. “He is willing to negotiate with individual Senators to get their votes so it is premature to call the bill dead. McConnell knows the Senate well and understands what compromises need to be made to get to 50 votes,” notes West.

If Senate Republicans pass their health care bill next week, I predict they might just find out that they have “awakened a sleeping giant,” the Democrats. When the dust settles after the 2018 mid-term elections we will find this out.

Advertisements

Can Our Nation Survive Trump and the GOP’s Control of Capitol Hill?

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 8, 2017

Almost two months ago when GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump trounced his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton and his party took control of both chamber of Congress. Trump’s surprising victory stunned both voters and political commentators and pundits covering the heated presidential race. According to a November 16, 2016 Gallup Poll, 80 percent of Trump’s voters are “excited,” while 76 percent of Clinton’s voters say they are “afraid.” A large majority of the respondents (75 percent) shared one reaction: “surprise.”

Days after the tumultuous election, Darrell M. West, vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Washington, D.C.-based the Brookings Institution, penned his thoughts about how president-elect Trump might govern the divided nation. His posting, “Four Scenarios for a Trump Presidency,” can be found on the Brooking’s FixGov blog, written on November 14, 2016.

Speculating on Trump’s White House Governance

In his 1,286 word blog, West, an American author, political scientist, pollical commentator who formerly taught political science at Brown University for 26 years, says that Trump might choose to govern as a traditional Republican endorsing tax cuts, deregulation and repealing Obamacare. Like other GOP politicians he would call for reinstituting law and order, fighting ISIS and other extremist militant groups, and controlling illegal immigration from coming into this country. “These typical GOP positions might resolve his philosophical differences on “entitlement reform and free trade,” says West, an author or co-author of 22 books.

Trump just might even turn over the reins of the presidency to Vice President Mike Pence, House Speaker Paul Ryan, and Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, says West, these individuals “becoming the de facto prime minister.”

According to West, like president-elect Trump did during the presidential campaign, he might take on the role of a “popular rogue.” A “populist Trump could break conventional political rules and “attack the political establishment to represent the little guy,” notes West’s blog posting.

West also suggests that Trump might ultimately fail as president. After all he lost the popular vote by 2 percentage points or nearly three million votes and alienated women, millennials, minorities and immigrants with his insulting comments. Scandals and disclosures about his personal behavior and continuing concerns about serious financial conflicts of interest could derail his “honeymoon” phase at the beginning of his presidential term and negatively impact his popularity ratings, he says.

West also speculates in his blog that policy backlashes due to millions losing health care coverage by his push to repeal Obamacare, privatizing Medicare or gutting Social Security, a slow-down in the economy or even Trump’s continued liking of Russian President Vladimir Putin, might make him a one term president, like President Jimmy Carter.

Finally, public outcry and violent protest may turn Trump into an authoritarian leader. If this happens West expresses concerns smear campaigns (waged by White House Strategist Steve Bannon), the use of federal agencies to “attack adversaries” and the use of local police to “crack down” on protestors. “Firing top intelligence officials would suggest that Trump wants compliant people who will do his bidding against foreign and domestic adversaries,” he says.

Big Changes with the GOP in Charge

“It is a scary time in American politics,” says West, who expects to see big changes on Capitol Hill in 2017. The Brookings political pundit predicts that a Trump White House with a GOP controlled Congress will tackle large tax cuts, corporate tax reform, repealing Obamacare (but not having anything to replace it with), and reversing the Dodd Frank financial regulation bill. With the Republicans controlling both chambers of Congress he does not expect gridlock during the first six months of the 115th Congress.

West predicts that in the long-run many of the GOP president and Republican Congressional leadership policy initiatives will be problematic. “They are governing as if they have a clear mandate even though they lost the popular vote, he says.

West, like some political observers, expect many of the GOP’s conservative policy proposals to hurt the people who voted for Trump. The tax cuts go disproportionately to the top one percent and proposed changes in Medicare and Medicaid will limit medical care, he said.

“In a couple of years, the economy probably will be much weaker than it is today, which will undermine the very rationale of Trump’s candidacy,” says West, noting that if this happens the newly elected president could have a 30 percent job approval rating by 2018. “Of course, that is when he really will become dangerous! The risk is he may try things to improve his poll numbers, such as identifying scapegoats or confronting adversaries,” warns West.

“GOP Congressional leaders have plans to privatize Medicare and block grant Medicaid to the states. This will impose limitations on medical care and make it more difficulty for needy people to get the help they need,” adds West, who also sees Republicans moving to reduce home care and medical assistance to America’s elderly.

West sees the “GOP legislative initiatives as being very contentious politically, and will reinforce perceptions of the GOP as cold and heartless [to Americans].”

“Democrats will not be able to pass legislation. Their main power will be trying to block things they don’t like or stop nominations at confirmation hearings that they find problematic,” says West, noting that they will be put in a defensive posture. “They will seek to protect certain gains made during the Obama administration. However, Congressional Democratic leadership may well be able to work together on infrastructure investments,” he says.

West believes that Trump’s fix for the economy will not work. “In the longer-run, there is a risk that inflation will go up. Interest rates already have risen in anticipation of this,” he says.

“The market is expecting Trump to spend a lot of money and not be able to corral spending by the same amount. That will increase deficits and drive up inflation. It will be hard to blame this on Democrats since there has been low inflation for years now. It will be pretty obvious that GOP policies are responsible for the rate increases,” West adds.

Democrats Mobilize, Video Sends Message to Congress

As president-elect Trump’s inauguration approaches, President Obama traveled to Capitol Hill last week to urge Congressional Democrats to block the GOP president and the Republican Congressional leadership’s efforts to dismantle Obamacare, the outgoing president’s signature healthcare reform law and to fight their legislative policy initiatives. Behind closed doors Obama urged Democratic lawmakers to not “rescue” the Republicans by passing replacement measures. He suggested calling the GOP’s new plan, “Trumpcare,” to ensure that they are held responsible for any disruptions in health coverage. At press time there seems to be no GOP health care plan to consider.

After Obama’s meeting Democrats lawmakers have begun using the phrase, “Make America Sick Again, tying into Trump’s wildly recognized campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.”

Hollywood is moving to block Trump’s policy initiatives. Almost a week ago documentarian Liz Garbus unveiled her one minute and 49 second video (#StandUpForUS), released by Humanity for Progress, to urge Congress to block any legislative initiatives pushed by Trump and his GOP allies that attack groups he marginalized during last year’s presidential campaign. Celebrities and activists lined up to participate in this video. They included Rosie Perez, Keegan-Michael Key, Tavi Gevinson, Lea Delaria, Sally Field, Steve Buscemi, Zoe Kazan, Jeffrey Wright, and Janet Mock, among others.

“The majority of Americans, regardless of who they voted for, did not vote for racism, for sexism, or for xenophobia. And yet Donald Trump won,” notes the video. At the end of the video, viewers are asked to email the video to members of Congress, as well as to sign a petition on http://www.MoveOn.org, to resist Trump and the GOP agenda,

Stay Tuned

The aftermath of the 2017 presidential election has politically split our nation. Although Trump won the Electoral College, Clinton, the former secretary of state, pulled in over 64 million votes. Even without a clear legislative mandate President-elect Trump and Republican Congressional leadership are moving at a quick pace to make major policy and systemic changes during the first 100 days of the 115th Congress. Democrats are now forced to play the loyal opposition for the next four years and fight against GOP policies rammed through the legislative process. Will GOP legislative fixes push American in the right direction? Or will the nation survive these changes? Stay tuned.

Let Rhode Island’s Social Security Debate Begin

Published in Woonsocket Call on August 21, 2016

It’s less than 80 days before the upcoming 2016 presidential election. At press time, Social Security has been placed on the backburner as the GOP standard bearer Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, turn their attention to crime, national security, health care and the economy.

On the sideline, nearly 218,000 Rhode Islanders who collect Social Security benefits, including 155,710 seniors, 37,476 disabled workers, and 17,802 survivors of a deceased spouse or parent, are closely watching one of the nation’s nastiest political campaign unfold. Political insiders and aging groups know that whoever takes over the White House and controls Congress will control in the year’s to come how retiree’s receive their retirement checks.

Putting a Spotlight on Social Security

Earlier this week David N. Cicilline (D-RI) and John B. Larson (D-CT) came to the Rumford Towers in East Providence to put the spotlight on Social Security, both stressing how important it is to keep Social Security solvent through the end of this century. The two Democratic lawmakers called on GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan to move their introduced legislation, “Social Security 2100 Act,” from House Committee to floor vote.

“Social Security is a promise that after a lifetime of hard work, you should be able to retire with dignity, economic security, and peace of mind. It’s critical that Congress act expeditiously to preserve and strengthen this promise for years to come,” said Cicilline to over 80 attendees at the 90 minute event.

Larson noted that Social Security is not an entitlement but benefits that have been earned by hard-working Americans who have paid into the retirement system their whole lives. “Two-thirds of retirees rely on Social Security for the majority of their income, and it is a lifeline for the disabled and those who have lost a loved one,” he said, calling those pushing for Social Security cuts as “fundamentally misguided.”

The Nuts & Bolts

The “Social Security 2100 Act,” introduced by Cicilline and Larson in 2015, expands Social Security benefits, cuts taxes for 11 million seniors, provides stronger cost of living adjustments, and requires millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share. The legislative proposal also provides an immediate increase equivalent to 2% of the average benefit for all Social Security recipients. This change is projected to yield an annual increase for the typical retiree of $300.

The Democratic lawmakers Social Security fix also improves the annual cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) formula to reflect the prices of goods and services seniors actually buy – especially housing, health care, and transportation – to ensure that seniors aren’t asked to go without a COLA to protect against inflation. In three of the past seven years, Rhode Island seniors did not receive a COLA as a result of the inadequate formula that is used today.

Finally, the Cicilline-Larson Plan also lifts the cap on payroll taxes for individuals making more than $400,000 each year, requiring the wealthiest 0.4% of Americans to pay the same rate as all other workers. The increased revenue generated as a result will provide a tax cut for 11 million seniors and establish a new minimum benefit so that no one who has worked hard and played by the rules is asked to retire into poverty. Tax relief for Social Security beneficiaries due to an increase in the threshold for taxation of Social Security benefits to $50,000 for individuals and $100,000 for joint filers, up from $25,000 and $32,000 respectively.

While current projections indicate that the Social Security Trust Fund will begin generating annual deficits in 2019 and stop paying out full benefits in 2033, the Cicilline-Larson Plan expands the lifeline of Social Security through the end of this century by gradually phasing in an increase in the contribution rate equivalent to 50 cents per week for the average worker.

NCPSSM Gives Thumbs Up

In an endorsement letter, Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), calls the Cicilline-Larson Plan “a bold step on behalf of seniors and all Americans by strengthening and safeguarding Social Security for future beneficiaries while at the same time making important improvements in the adequacy of the benefits the program provides.”

According to Richtman, the “Social Security 2100 Act” strengthens the retirement programs “financial foundations.” He says: “First, it extends the payroll tax to all wages paid to workers that are in excess of $400,000. Over time, the bill would completely eliminate the cap on Social Security payroll taxes. Second, the “Social Security 2100 Act” implements a small,
gradual increase in workers’ and employers’ contributions to Social Security. Because the increase is phased in over a long period of time, the average worker would see his or her annual contributions to the Social Security program increase by about 50 cents per week.”

In this presidential election cycle, Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, sees Democrats making a “big push” to strengthen and expand the Social Security program. “This will not likely happen as long as there is a Republican Congress as many members of the GOP want to cut the future rate of growth of Social Security and increase the retirement age,” he says, predicting that there is a good chance Democrats will get the Senate back.

West adds, “whether the GOP regain control of the House will depend on how big the presidential victory is. If Clinton wins big, she may sweep in enough Democrats to have control of that chamber. In that situation, this legislation has much better prospects. A President Clinton could very well be interested in this proposal and be willing to sign it into law.”

Where’s the Beef?

Political newcomer and GOP challenger H. Russell Taub, calls on Cicilline, his Democratic opponent in the 1st Congressional District race, to not attach new benefits to Social Security, a self-funded program. Taub wonders how new federal expenditures to pay for added Social Security benefits will impact the heavily burdened retirement program.

Taub sees a need to have a “serious public discourse” on the nation’s budget. “When we’ve come to a conclusion lets craft meaningful legislation to get the law to reflect that decision. Let’s not drop flash-in-the-pan, headline grabbing false initiatives just because it’s an election year. Our Constituents in the First District deserve much better than that shabby treatment,” he says.

“AARP Take a Stand volunteers and members of our staff were on hand to listen to what the Congressmen had to say,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “Having candidates for office outlining their specific plan for making the necessary changes to preserve Social Security is what Take a Stand is all about. We are not at this time endorsing specific proposals, but we are engaging our members to keep asking for substantive answers. We’ve been saying ‘sound bites aren’t good enough.’ The Congressmen, indeed, go beyond a sound bite by presenting this plan in a public venue open to the media. People deserve to know how the plans will affect our families, what it will cost, and how they’ll get it done.

“Doing nothing is not an option.” Connell continued. “Every time the candidates dodge the question, our families pay the price.

If our nation’s leaders don’t act, future retirees stand to lose up to $10,000 a year. And every year our leaders wait and do nothing, finding a solution grows more and more difficult.”

Rhode Island voters are now able to see Cicilline’s fix for strengthening Social Security and expanding its benefits, detailed in his introduced legislative proposal, “Social Security 2100 Act.” GOP challenger Taub must throw in his two cents for strengthening the nation’s retirement program, but give us the details. Do you favor the GOP approach for privatizing Social Security? What is your position on raising the cap on Social Security payroll contributions to address the retirement program’s projected shortfall? Do you support raising the retirement age? What are your thoughts about slowly increasing the payroll contribution rate by 1/20th of one percent over 20 years to strengthen the program’s financial condition? Or even changing the current COLA formula.

While the presidential candidates put the economy, crime, and national security in the spotlight at their rallies, town meetings and speeches, Social Security receives little coverage. Let the serious debate begin in the Ocean State. Hopefully, this act will spread like wild fire across the country.

How the Election Impacts Social Security

Published in Woonsocket Call on July 24, 2016

On the final night of the Republican National Convention (RNC) an average of 32 million Americans tuned in to watch Donald J. Trump, a New York Real Estate Developer, author, television personality and now politician, formally accepted the GOP nomination for President of the United States.

After he delivered his July 21 speech, reporters, political commentators, and even postings trending on twitter called Trump’s hour and 15 minute speech (4,400 words) “dark” because of its stark tone and content. This GOP presidential candidate’s speech was even referred to as being the longest acceptance speech in history since 1972.

Before more than 2,400 delegates Trump, 70, pledged to be the nation’s law and order president who would crack down on crime and violence. America first would be Trump’s mantra during the negotiation of international trade deals and the existing NAFTA trade accord would be renegotiated.

Trump also called for defending the nation’s borders against illegal immigrants and giving parents more choice in choosing schools for their children. And to the forgotten men and woman across the country who were laid-off because of President Obama’s mishandling of the economy Trump promised to be their voice. Syrian refugees would be vetted and only those individuals who “will support our values and love our people” will be admitted, he said.

Trump Ignores Social Security in Speech

Aging advocates say that Trump’s acceptance speech was short on details when it can to domestic policy, specifically Social Security and Medicare. But, you won’t need tea leaves to read how a future Trump Administration will change the way the nation supports its retirees. .

According to Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), the choice of Governor Mike Pence as Trump’s running mate should send “a very clear message to America’s seniors that their priorities will hold little weight in a Trump administration.” While Trump has promised on the campaign trail that he won’t cut Social Security and Medicare.

During his 12 years serving as a U.S. Congressman, Pence consistently voted in favor of GOP legislative efforts to cut benefits in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, says Richtman, charging that Trump’s vice presidential running mate is one of a few Congressional lawmakers that has a strong “anti-seniors voting record.”

Richtman says that “Mike Pence was one of Congress’ biggest proponents of privatization. He supports cutting Social Security benefits by raising the retirement age, reducing the COLA, means-testing and turning Medicare into “CouponCare.” As he told CNN, ‘I’m an all of the above guy. I think we need to look at everything that’s on the menu,’ and the record shows he has done just that by supporting every form of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefit cut proposed in the past decade.”

While Trump has promised not to cut Social Security benefits on his year-long campaign trail, he continues to surround himself with advisors who are “polar opposite” of his positions says Richtman. “They say actions speak louder than words — Donald Trump’s choice of Mike Pence as his Vice-Presidential running mate will speak volumes to American seniors,” he adds.

Political Experts Weigh in

Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, says that “Trump is on record as saying he does not want to cut Social Security so that is considerably different from most Republican leaders, who support benefit reductions as a way to balance its books. This probably is the reason the [GOP] platform is vague on Social Security. The party could not reconcile Trump’s view on not cutting benefits with the party’s general view that cuts are needed. That left them with a reference to market solutions without explaining what that meant.”

“Party leaders have said they want to raise the retirement age for people under age 50. That issue certainly would be on the issue in a Trump presidency although it is not clear how he views that issue. But there would be significant support in a GOP-run Congress for doing that and cutting the benefits of future retirees,” adds West.

West believes that “Democrats have a very good chance of recapturing control of the Senate. If that happens, that will allow them to block benefit reductions or raising the retirement age, he says.

Wendy Schiller, professor and chair, Department of Political Science at Brown University, warns that talking about changing Social Security can be risky and this “involves a depth of knowledge about entitlement financing that eludes most political candidates especially those without any political experience.”

The Brown professor of politics does not see Trump tackling this issue in any meaningful way in the campaign and she does not believe it will be a priority for him or the GOP if he wins. “Recall George W. Bush tried to reform Social Security immediately after he won reelection in 2004 – by late January 2005 it was dead on arrival in Congress,” she says.

“Overall I am not sure the GOP leadership in the Congress has fully processed what a Trump presidency would look like in terms of policy or what his priorities might be. It is unclear to me that they will align closely and getting anything through Congress these days is nearly impossible, no matter who sits in the Oval Office,” she adds.

Stark Differences in Platforms to Fix Social Security

On Friday, the released Democratic Platform released reveal a stark difference as how to the Democratic and Republican parties will fix the ailing Social Security program. The GOP platform. Although current retirees and those close to retirement will receive their benefits, changes are looming with a Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress. For younger generations all benefit cut options to be put on the table, opposing the lifting of the payroll tax cap and sees privatization of Social Security as a way for older American’s to create wealth for use in retirement. On the other hand, the Democratic Party platform calls for a strengthening and expansion of the existing Social Security program. The Democrats oppose any attempts to “cut, privatize or weaken” Social Security, and calls for lifting the payroll tax and exploring a new COLA formula.

NCPSSM’s Richtman notes “ It’s also very telling that while the GOP buried their cuts and privatization plans for Social Security under the Platform’s Government Reform heading, the Democrats addressed Social Security, as they should, as part of their plan to restore economic security for average Americans. That’s been Social Security’s fundamental role for more than 80 years — providing an economic lifeline impacting the lives of virtually every American family.”

As AARP’s John Hishta noted in his July 22 blog, even though the “political spotlight was not on Social Security” at the RNC in Cleveland, delegates, rank-and-file politicians and even political operatives that he talked with clearly understand the programs importance to retirees and younger generations.

“If political leaders fail to act, future retirees could lose up to $10,000 a year. All beneficiaries could face a nearly 25 percent cut in their benefit,” warns Hishta. .

Hishta tells his blog readers that “AARP’s Take a Stand campaign left the RNC with renewed determination to make updating Social Security a bigger part of the presidential debate.” He pledges to continue pushing for strengthening and expanding the nation’s Social Security program at next week’s Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and until the November presidential elections.

To keep informed about Social Security discussion during this presidential campaign go to http://takeastand.aarp.org/,

Obama’s Budget DOA, Thanks to GOP Gridlock

Published in the Woonsocket Call on February 14, 2016

With a GOP-controlled Congress President Obama’s final budget arrives “dead on arrival” on Capitol Hill.  The 182-page 2017 Fiscal Year budget, submitted on February 9, detailing $4.1 trillion in federal spending, which starts October 1, seems to be not worth the paper it’s written on.

Obama, a “lame duck” president in his last term, will not get his day in court.  Since the 1970s, a long-standing political tradition has brought the Office of Management and Budget Director and other senior administration officials, to present the president’s entire budget to Congress.  However, the Chairs of the House and Senate budget committees snubbed the Democratic President by issuing a joint statement saying, there will be no hearings before their panels this year. Sadly, political gridlock, fostered GOP Senate and House leadership, still seems to be alive and well on Capitol Hill.

Crafting the budget proposal now is in the hands of a very conservative Congress. But there a positives in Obama’s budget proposal, provisions that hopefully be placed in an enacted budget.

Obama’s budget proposal makes critical investments to fund domestic and national security priorities while adhering to the bipartisan budget agreement signed into law last fall.  It lifts sequestration in future years.  The budget proposal also attempts to drive down the federal deficit through smart savings from health care, immigration, and tax the wealthy and banks.

The Budget also seeks to tackle a multitude of domestic issues including confronting climate change, finding new clinical treatments for attacking cancer, advancing biomedical research, fighting infectious diseases, protecting the nation’s water supply and fostering clean energy initiatives, ratcheting up military readiness, revitalizing the American manufacturing sector, and funding job training and education initiatives.

Obama’s Final Budget and Seniors

But Obama’s 2017 Fiscal Year Budget has a number of budget provisions that directly impact older Americans, too.

According to  President and CEO Max Richtman, of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, like last year’s Obama recently released budget proposal proposes no changes in the way Social Security benefits are determined which is “good news for seniors.”

Richtman says that his aging organization worked tirelessly to make sure the FY 2017 budget did not include any Social Security proposals that would negatively impact benefits for current or future beneficiaries.  He notes, “The new budget proposes a substantial increase in the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) budget — $13.067 billion for SSA’s FY 2017 appropriation for administrative funding.  This is a $905 million, or 7.44 percent, increase over the FY 2016 enacted level.”

Finally, Obama’s newly released budget helps SSA to improve customer service for those applying for SSA and/or disability benefits by hiring additional front-line employees for its teleservice centers and local offices as well as additional staff to reduce the backlog of disability applications that have accumulated in SSA’s hearing offices, he says.

NCPSSM also applauded the President’s budget proposal for allowing Medicare to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices.

Richtman observed it has taken Congress a long time to acknowledge that the high cost of prescription drugs has hit older American’s hard in their wallets.  “Medicare spends billions providing Part D drug coverage each year while beneficiaries including seniors, the disabled and their families also face rising out-of-pocket costs and higher premiums, he says, noting that “All the while, drug makers continue to reap the profits of their price gouging.”

In his budget proposal Obama has again proposed lifting the ban preventing Medicare from negotiating prices with the drug companies, notes Richtman, warning that “Big Pharma has lobbied hard to keep the ban in place but seniors expect, this time, Congress will do the right thing and finally allow Medicare to negotiate for fair prices.”

Richtman says there are other budget provisions that benefit the nation’s seniors.  Specifically, the closing the Part D donut hole two years earlier, additional funding for in-home services, and reforms for overpayments going to private insurers in Medicare Advantage.

Meanwhile, the President’s budget was not all good news, adds Richtman, noting that “Once again, the budget proposes shifting even more healthcare costs to seniors by extending Medicare means-testing to the middle class and increasing out-of-pocket costs such as the home health care copayment and the Part B deductible.”

The President’s new funding request also targets vulnerable older Americans, by increasing funding from the 2016 Fiscal year Budget.  The President has increased last year’s budget by more than $10 million in discretionary resources for supportive services, also increasing the Congregate and Home-Delivered Nutrition Programs (like Meals on Wheels) by $14 million.  The Aging and Disability Resource Centers is also given a $2 million increase.

Other programs benefit from Obama’s budget proposal, too.  Elder Justice Initiative and Lifespan Respite Care Programs each would receive $2 increases from last year.  The Commodity Supplemental Food Program would get $14 million more.   The budget proposal also puts $10 million in for a new initiative to improve senior access to the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program.  Section 202 Housing for the Elderly also gives a bump from last year in the tune of $72 million.

But the budget request slashes funding for programs that serve low-income seniors, specifically the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Programs and the Community Development Block Grant takes huge fiscal hits.

Views from the Side Line 

             Obama’s budget proposal preserves programs for seniors, funding Social Security and Medicare, says Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, “Not many Republicans are taking this budget very seriously as they plan to write their own budget. The GOP alternative likely is going to include changes to programs affecting senior citizens, he warns.

Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation weighs in on the looming heated partisan budget debate where law makers will be toeing the part line.

Congressman David Cicilline, notes that he is disappointed that the House Budget Committee will not ‎holding hearings on President Obama’s budget proposal. “We should be discussing ways to strengthen Social Security, preserve Medicare, and ensure retirement security for every American. Unfortunately, it’s clear that House Republicans don’t want to have this discussion,” he says.

U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse weighed in on the brewing pre-election budget battle.  “I’m pleased to see that the President’s budget protects Social Security and Medicare from the cuts sought by many Republicans.  As the President has proposed, we should reduce the deficit by closing wasteful tax loopholes, not by compromising the programs essential to our seniors, and not after saving Rhode Island seniors $14.4 million in prescription costs thanks to the Affordable Care Act.”

Finally, U.S. Senator Jack Reed notes that the President’s budget proposal reflects a number of his ongoing efforts to support Rhode Island seniors.  “This budget blueprint proposes significant investments in the health and well-being of aging Americans, and I will work hard to champion these proposals as we work through the appropriations process this year, he says.

“I am particularly glad the President heeded my call to propose meaningful steps towards lowering the cost of prescription drugs, which is critical for middle class families,” adds the Senator.

Now the work begins as Congress starts to craft it’s 2017 Fiscal Year Budget.  Democratic Congressional lawmakers can glean and fight for provisions in Obama’s eighth and final budget that positively benefit older Americans. With Senator Reed, sitting on the Senate Appropriations Committee, the Rhode Island’s Senior Senator and the state’s Congressional Delegation will play a major role in shaping the nation’s future aging programs and services.

 

Candidates Mum on Social Security

Published in Pawtucket Times on February 8, 2016

Just a week before the New Hampshire primary, scheduled for Tuesday, February 9, AARP releases a new survey, of likely primary voters, that finds Social Security is “one issue that transcends the partisan divide and unites people of all ages.” Both surveyed Democrats and Republicans alike agreed that all presidential candidates should give details as to how they will strengthen or expand Social Security.

In recent presidential debates, moderators focus on the economy, abortion, gun control, immigration and defense, hardly touching on aging issues. The January 29 AARP survey found that voters want more specifics about Social Security. More than nine in 10 New Hampshire primary voters across party lines and age groups say it is important for presidential candidates to lay out their specific plans to make Social Security financially sound for future generations.

Presidential Candidates Dodging Social Security Issue

“New Hampshire primary voters are sending a clear message to the presidential candidates that having a plan to keep Social Security strong is a test of leadership,” said AARP New Hampshire State Director Todd Fahey. “Yet, some presidential candidates are dodging the issue. Our survey confirms New Hampshire primary voters agree if a candidate thinks they’re ready to be president, they should at least be able to tell voters where they stand on Social Security’s future.”

According to AARP, the recent survey of 1,004 likely New Hampshire primary voters, was conducted by telephone from January 12 through January 16, 2016. By design, half of the respondents consist of likely Democratic primary voters (501) and half consist of likely Republican primary voters (503).

The AARP survey is part of nonprofit’s 2016 presidential election issue campaign, “Take A Stand.” In November, the nonprofit launched its its 2016 election accountability campaign initiative which demands on behalf of America’s voters that presidential candidates detail their specific positions on making Social Security financially sound.
The survey findings indicate that nine in 10 New Hampshire primary voters (93 percent Democrat and 92 percent Republican) across party lines and age groups say its important for presidential candidates to lay out a detailed plan to make Social Security financially sound for future generations. Regardless of age, nearly half or more of likely primary voters in each party think this is “very important.”

Also, more than three in four New Hampshire primary voters, across party lines and across age groups, agree that having a plan for Social Security is a basic threshold for presidential leadership. This includes 89 percent of likely Democratic primary voters and 80 percent of likely Republican primary voters.

Moreover, nearly nine in ten or more voters across both parties and age groups believe it is important that the next president and congress take action to make Social Security financially sound. This includes 96 percent of Democratic primary voters as well as 92 percent of Republican primary voters.

“If our leaders don’t act, future generations could see their Social Security benefits cut by 25 percent. That’s a $4,000 to $10,000 per year benefit cut! This survey confirms how critical it is for the next president to have a plan to update Social Security and a commitment to act on that plan,” said Fahey.

On the question of which presidential candidate they expect to vote for on February 9, the AARP survey found that among likely Republican primary voters, Donald Trump is the leading choice for president (preferred by 32 percent) with Marco Rubio preferred by 14 percent and John Kasich preferred by 13 percent However, more than one in four (26 percent) are less certain who will get their vote.

Among likely Democratic primary voters, Bernie Sanders is the leading choice for president (preferred by 59 percent), with Hillary Clinton coming in second (preferred by 33 percent. But one in five (21 percent are less certain who will get their vote.

“AARP said early on in the election cycle that Social Security is too critical a matter – and one affecting far too many people – to allow it to be skimmed over, breezed by, or paid only lip service,” said AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen Connell. “The presidential candidates need to take a stand on how they would update Social Security to keep it financially strong and adequate for future generations,” she says.

“Unfortunately, Social Security does not seem to be top-of-mind for candidates nor a discussion that finds its way into the debates,” says Connell, observing that some candidates, including some frontrunners, remain silent on the Social Security issue.
(You can get the very latest news and read what candidates with plans did say at http://www.2016takeastand.org.)

Connell says, “The challenge itself – keeping Social Security strong for the future – gets talked about a lot. You can be sure that when a candidate or elected federal official visits a senior center there will be a pledge (one I happen to believe has been sincere in Rhode Island) to protect Social Security.”

“You don’t hear so much about how. The devil is in the details. And, as the saying goes, ‘It’s complicated,’” adds Connell.

Older Voters Have Political Clout

From inside the Beltway, Darrell M. West, Ph.D., Vice President and Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, considers voters age 50 and over are one of the most important voting blocs in the nation. “It is a numerous group and these people vote in higher percentages than those who are younger. They often are decisive in elections and candidates have to take their views seriously,” says West.

Connell agrees about the clout of older voters. “The average age for a Rhode Island voter in the 2012 presidential election was 48.6, and that was up from 48.5 in 2010. We know that older Rhode Islanders vote in high percentages and we know that the 50+ population is grown as people live longer. But I have to say that when it comes to Social Security, voters 50 and older are united on the issue; they expect some form of accountability from the candidates on how they would lead on this issue, she says.

Anyone who thinks they’re ready to be President of the United States should be able to tell voters how they’ll keep Social Security strong,” adds Connell. “If our leaders don’t act, future retirees could lose up to $10,000 a year. Every year our leaders wait and do nothing, finding a solution grows more difficult,” she says.

Aging issues impact everyone, says Connell. “When I am asked about ‘aging issues it seems to me to indicate how people often default to a narrow view of ageing. Access to and the cost of healthcare is an issue for all ages. Taxation is an issue for all ages. Affordable housing is an issue for all ages. Protecting pensions is an issue for all ages, even for voters working in their 30s or 40s – as is the issue of Social Security. Our aging population presents a challenge to all Americans and I think you will see 50+ voters becoming increasingly liked-minded making more and more of an effort to be heard.”

Retooling America’s Manufacturing Sector

Published in Pawtucket Times, February 15, 2013

Over 50 years ago, you could hear the humming of the machines coming from Rhode Island’s factories.  The piercing sound of factory whistles would rip through the surrounding neighborhood, alerting all that a shift was ending and the next would soon begin.  

Weaving cotton into textiles came from mills scattered throughout northern Rhode Island which translated into work opportunities for all.  Traveling from the City of Providence, the CapitalCity to the City of Pawtucket, the birthplace of the nation’s Industrial Revolution, through Central Falls and up through the City of Woonsocket, you will discover that once we were the hub for the manufacturing of fabric for the nation’s second world war effort. For those factories filling three shifts, meant thousands of workers working in these mills, giving them a place to earn an honorable living. Blue collar workers fueled the nation’s economy as they bought homes, automobiles, as well as providing the  resources to send their children to colleges and universities. “Made in America” was a lifestyle and we were proud of it. 

Today, there is silence in many of these mills and for many of them, a new identity as these same factories have been transformed into artist lofts and studios or renovated for condo living.    For those factories still in operation, many of these manufacturers have decreased the number of shifts, thus reducing their workforce and ultimately impacting many of the local small businesses, leading to closures because of lack of customers.  Simply put, it’s the domino affect and the last piece might fall without Congressional action.   

Manufacturing Goes Over Seas

Over this decade, America’s manufacturing sector has crumbled giving way to China and third world countries to pick up the ball.  Drastically lower wages enable Chinese manufacturers to make cheaper goods sold to consumers for less then it would cost for the items to be made by an American-based manufacturing company. Along with lower wages, Chinese manufacturers face less environmental and safety regulations, taxes and have subsidized operational costs.  Imbalanced trade agreements are not favorable to American manufacturers who are losing the “economic race”, thus resulting in a loss of profits and employee lay offs.  Many of the nation’s manufacturers are being forced out of business, permanently closing their doors in cities and towns throughout this nation.       

A shopping trip always leaves me very unsettled about the flood of cheap imported productions into our nation.  Lower price tags on goods made outside of this country are enticing, but how often is quality been sacrificed for price?  We’ve  become a country of ‘mediocraty’ where its “good enough”.  Imported products ultimately impacts America’s children, who are now less likely to experience the prosperity that their parents once achieved because of the country’s manufacturing economy, which has now begun to falter and tilt to a service economy.     

Shelves of big box stores are packed with electronics and appliances, with most of these items stamped “Made in China.” Your local department store filled with discount bins and clothing racks are certainly not immune from this labeling.  The next time you are shopping, examine the country of origin for that product you are holding.  You guessed it, clothing, dishes, pots and pans, picture frames, all made from Chinese manufacturing companies. 

 Manufacturing Plants Sitting Idle

 As America’s manufacturing sector is decimated by the Chinese along with our communities losing higher paying manufacturing jobs, only lower paying service sector jobs will become available to low and middle income Americans. US Bureau of Labor Statistics 2011 Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages show that the average Rhode Island manufacturing job pays $50,823 annually and that there are currently 40,341 employees directly related to manufacturing. Six years ago, over 52,000 Rhode Islanders worked in the manufacturing sector.

Currently, cities and towns now see manufacturing plants sitting idle and empty or underutilized, often times reducing their tax base. This continued trend will not allow for a balanced economy.  Rhode Island can ill afford to lose its existing manufacturing base, ultimately thousands of people to the state’s unemployment statistics.

 

 Once upon a time, “Made in America” stamped on products gave the buyer an assurance of quality.  Government recalls protected our citizens from products that might harm or kill.  As we are increasingly aware, “Made in China” does not always ensure quality (such as pharmaceuticals, tooth paste and defective tires) because of poor Chinese governmental oversight.  In 2007, newspapers reported that some exported toys “Made in China” were produced with high levels of lead paint, being sent to tens of thousands of toy stores throughout the nation, putting our nation’s children at risk. At this time, even lack of product quality control even allowed poisoned pet food manufactured by Chinese companies to be shipped to America, killing thousands of cats and dogs.   

 Resuscitating the Nation’s Manufacturing Sector

With the kickoff of the 113th Congressional Session last month, it is crucial that the Democratic and Republican politicians thoroughly debate this nation’s trade policies and come up with viable bipartisan solutions to reenergizing America’s manufacturing sector.

Most importantly, what steps will President Barrack H. Obama working with a divided Congress take to ensure that American well-paying jobs do not vanish in the global economy?   On Tuesday evening, the President, addressing a joint session of Congress, gave us some clues in his State of the Union speech about retooling America’s manufacturing sector. 

Although the President touched on immigration reform and border security, early child education, clean energy technologies, the war in Afghanistan, and confronting gun violence, he called for fixing the nation’s aging infrastructure, along with launching manufacturing hubs, where businesses partner with the Department of Defense and Energy, to create high tech-jobs.  He looked to Congress to create a network of 15 of these hubs to “guarantee that the next revolution in manufacturing is “Made in America.”   If Congress blocks this economic initiative the defiant President plans to use executive orders to create three hubs on his own.

Meanwhile, redesigning the nation’s high schools to enable graduates to meet the demands of a high-tech economy can only help manufacturing companies, the noted President Obama.  Schools would be rewarded to develop partnerships with colleges and employers to create classes that teach science, technology, engineering and math skills needed by the nation’s manufacturing sector, he said.

In the Ocean State, as part of his ongoing work to jump start Rhode Island’s economy back, U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline (D-RI)  at North East Knitting Company in Pawtucket, unveiled another version of his Make It In America Manufacturing Act to target federal investment in manufacturing, helping create jobs, generate public-private partnerships, and support small business growth. (This legislative proposal is similar to one that he introduced two years ago.)

“When they’re competing on a level playing field, American workers outperform competitors across the world,” said Cicilline. Noting that Rhode Island’s economy was built on the strength of its manufacturing industry, the Congressman who represents the 1st Congressional District, tapping into feedback from his Ocean State constituents and the Brookings Institution, crafted the legislative proposal to give manufacturer the resources needed to compete successfully, grow jobs, and get the state and national economy moving again.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), has introduced the companion measure in the Senate.  If signed into law, Cicilline’s Make It In America Manufacturing Act would create a competitive incentive grant program, jointly administered through the Departments of Labor and Commerce. States or regional partnerships may apply for the program, and successful applicants will receive grant funds to help implement innovative Manufacturing Enhancement Strategies. 

Meanwhile, funds can be used to create a revolving loan fund, to issue low interest loans to manufacturers, or to provide grants to non-profits, including community colleges, helping manufacturers to address the skills gap that hinders growth in the manufacturing sector.  The loan funds could also be used to increase exports and domestic supply chain opportunities, improve energy efficiency.  Also, the loans could be used to retool and expand existing manufacturing facilities to compete in the 21st century economy.

Seeking a Bipartisan Compromise

The clocks cannot be turned back.  The global economy is here to stay.  Clearly, Congressional gridlock must end by federal lawmakers seeking legislative solutions to making the nation’s manufacturing sector more competitive in a global economy.  Democratic and GOP lawmakers must hammer out bipartisan solutions to enable the nation’s manufacturing companies to fairly compete worldwide and to ensure that trade polices are balanced and fair for all.  

Many of President Obama’s repackaged proposals (reintroduced in his hour long State of the Union speech) and even Cicilline’s manufacturing proposal were derailed in the last Congress in a Republican-controlled House, where GOP Tea Party members practiced anti-compromise politics.  It becomes crucial for the President’s legislative agenda along with Cicilline’s Make It In America Manufacturing Act, to not be bottled up in the House but truly debated.

With the dust settling from November’s elections, the America public has sent both the President and Congress a strong, clear message that is: work together to fix the nation’s sagging economy. Do the people’s work and leave your political bickering outside the House and Senate Chambers.  Compromise and keep manufacturing in America.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a freelance writer covering aging, health care and medical, even business issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com

 

           

            .