How to Keep Social Security off the GOP Chopping Block

Published in Woonsocket Call on April 4, 2015

One of the first political skirmishes to protect the nation’s Social Security program, 589 days before next year’s Presidential election, took place on March 24th in the U.S. Senate during budget debate. Leading the charge, Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse called up Senator Wyden (D-OR)’s budget amendment, requesting a Senate point of order against legislation to cut benefits, raise the retirement age, or privatize Social Security.

During the debate, “Social Security benefits are a solemn promise that our seniors have earned over a lifetime of work,” said Whitehouse, a founding member of the Senate’s Defend Social Security Caucus. “Sadly, Republicans have made it their mission for decades to dismantle that promise, attempting to turn it over to Wall Street and cut benefits through misguided ideas like the so-called ‘chained-CPI’,” he charges, noting that the Democratic sponsored amendment protects Social Security from right-wing attacks and ensure that retirees can count on their earned retirement benefits.

Republican Senator Enzi from Wyoming raised a point of order, calling Wyden’s amendment non germane to the budget resolution being debated. With the Democrats rallying 51 Senators to vote yea, 60 votes were required to wave Enzi’s point of order.

Although his attempts to protect Social Security in the Senate budget failed, Richard Davidson, Whitehouse’s Rhode Island Press Secretary, tells this columnist that the Senator plans to continue his efforts to keep Social Security off the GOP budget chopping block and from being privatized by supporting legislation like the Keeping Our Social Security Promises Act, legislation that would raise the income cap on the payroll tax to ensure the program’s solvency.

Davidson also states that the Social Security trust funds are projected to be fully solvent though 2033, and there’s no immediate funding crisis. But, in the longer run, Whitehouse believes the program must be bolstered by applying the payroll tax, which currently only applies to income up to $118,500, to higher levels of income, he says.

Protecting SSDI

One month before the Senate Budget debate, the GOP-controlled Senate Budget Committee put a spotlight at a hearing on the impending insolvency of the nation’s Social Security Disability Trust Fund (SSDI). The federal government has predicted that SSDI fund reserves will run low by the end of 2016, at which point millions of disabled beneficiaries could see up to a twenty percent cut in benefits.

At the Senate hearing, entitled “The coming crisis: Social Security Disability Trust Fund Insolvency,” Democrats called for an easy quick fix to the problem, specifically the shifting of a small percentage of the Social Security payroll tax from the retirement trust fund to the disability trust fund. No big deal, they say, because these transfers have occurred 11 times in the past with bipartisan support without political bickering. But, from this hearing it seemed clear that GOP Senators, who control the Senate, now see things differently and are threatening to block the infusion of funds to SSDI.

Approximately 10.2 million Americans received SSDI benefits in 2013, including roughly 42,000 Rhode Islanders. In order to qualify, beneficiaries are required to have worked in a job covered by Social Security, and must have been unable to work for a year or more due to a disability.

A February 9 posting on the Plum Line blog, penned by Greg Sargent for the Washington Post web site, takes a look a look at this SSDI entitlement debate.
In his opinion blog, Sargent says that GOP lawmakers claim that a “restricting a fund transfer is all about forcing a necessary discussion on how to improve Social Security’s long term finances, rather than merely “kicking the can down the road.” On the other hand, the Washington Post blogger believes Democrats see the Republicans as “exaggerating the sense of crisis to realize one of two political goals. Either they want to force immediate, and unnecessary, cuts – or they want to hold the disability fund hostage, in order to have another run at cuts to the broader program [Social Security].”

Gathering the Troops

At a March 23rd panel discussion hosted by the Providence-based Headquarters of Community Action Partnership , Whitehouse and Congressman Jim Langevin with Rhode Island Senator Donna Nesselbush, a disability attorney, along with SSDI recipients, disability groups, and the Social Security Administration, came to discuss the solvency of SSDI and its impact on the Ocean State. The lawmakers called for shifting Social Security payroll taxes to financially shore up the ailing SSDI program. Both lawmakers also supported a long-term solution, fully funding the federal retirement and disability programs by lifting the cap on the amount of income that is subject to the payroll taxes that fund the program.

“Right now, a millionaire hedge-fund manager pays the same amount of taxes into the Social Security system as someone who makes $118,500,” said Whitehouse. He called for “wealthiest Americans to pay a fair share into the program, so that it’s not funded disproportionately on the backs of middle-class workers.”

Congressman Langevin stressed “SSDI is not only a critical safety-net for disabled workers, their children and spouses, it is also a promise we make to everyone who pays into the Social Security trust fund that they won’t be impoverished if they are left with a debilitating condition or disability.”
Although Whitehouse’s efforts to protect the nation’s Social Security and Disability programs were derailed in the Senate Budget debate because of a GOP procedural call, it’s only the first of many political skirmishes to come. The upcoming 2016 Presidential elections will firmly put this entitlement issue on the nation’s radar screen, hopefully to address once and for all.

But, here’s my message to Whitehouse: Even if you lose a skirmish, or battle, you can always win the war. Keep pushing.

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

Advertisements

Susan Sweet Takes the Reins of AARP’s Community Educational Initiative

Published in Pawtucket Times, July 11, 2013 

            Accepting the challenge offered by organizers of Rhode Island AARP’s “You’ve Earned a Say”, veteran advocate and organizer, Susan L. Sweet, has come out of semi-retirement, stepping to the plate to coordinate a series of “community conversations”  to continue efforts of promoting dialogue throughout the OceanState on the future of Social Security and Medicare.

             After years of paying into Medicare and Social Security, AARP, a Washington, D.C.-based group representing 40 million Americans, believes that age 50 plus aging baby boomers and older persons deserve a voice in the Inside the Beltway debates that impacts their future retirement years.  “You’ve Earned a Say” is a AARP-led national conversation committed to providing people with critical information about the domestic policy proposals being debated in Congress — simply put without the political jargon and spin.

             Regional events to be held in Warwick, Pawtucket and elsewhere – free and open to all — will be scheduled throughout the summer into the fall as Congress and  President Barack Obama begin to weigh in on policy changes for these critical domestic programs.

             “Susan has a remarkable knack for encouraging people to become actively engaged in matters that deserve public attention and involvement,” said AARP State Director Kathleen Connell. “We are fortunate that she has agreed to take this on. She will bring great energy to AARP’s ‘You’ve Earned a Say’ outreach and engagement efforts. The fate of Social Security and Medicare is important to all Rhode Islanders and we hope many will take part in our forums. Working with our staff and other AARP volunteers, Susan will be a tremendous asset. She is a force of nature.”   After seeing her in action for over 18 years this columnist agrees.

             A veteran of the 1960s civil rights movement and the War on Poverty, Sweet joined the state Department of Community Affairs (DCA) in 1972, where she founded and led numerous Rhode Island Division of Women’s programs.  She worked with the General Assembly to secure the first state funding for Domestic Violence Shelters.  While at the DCA, she also wrote a grant, funded by federal dollars, to establish community health centers throughout the state.

             In the late ‘80s and ‘90s, Sweet was Associate Director of the R. I. Department of Elderly Affairs (DEA), creating and developing a number of award winning programs, including the RI Pharmaceutical Assistance to the Elderly Program, popularly known as RIPAE.  She initiated a first in the nation statewide Elder Housing Security program and various legislative and programmatic initiatives to assist elders in the state.

             Sweet, a Rumford resident, earned the monikor as the mother of RIPAE by initiating, planning, organizing, managing and finally directing the state program that would ultimately assist 32,000 Rhode Island  limited income seniors with state co-payment assistance for prescription drugs. After leaving the DEA, three attempts were made by sitting governors (both Independent and Republican) to eliminate the program and the advocate led all three successful efforts to restore RIPAE funding in the state budget.

             After retiring as DEA’s Associate Director in 2000, Sweet has been a consultant and lobbyist on Smith Hill for nonprofit agencies and an advocate for vulnerable populations and issues such as immigrants, domestic violence, homeless and seniors. Her clients have included the Senior Centers Directors Association, the Alliance for Better Long Term Care, International Institute, the Coalition Against Domestic Violence and others.

             On a personal note, Sweet, 72, cares for five adopted cats, all abandoned or abused, putters in her large backyard garden, spends time with two children and two grandchildren.  Being an expert on Roman history she reads many tomes on that era, and on world archeology and history.

Social Security on the Chopping Block

               Democratic President Obama and a Democrat-controlled Senate and a GOP House of Representatives are trying to reach a budget deal in the coming months. President Obama has proposed a change that would slash $127 billion from Social Security benefits over the next ten years, hurting many older beneficiaries who are already living on very tight budgets stretched far to thin by costly prescriptions, rising utilities, and increased health care costs. AARP and other aging groups are pushing hard against these cuts, mobilizing their troops to oppose. 

             Social Security is a self-financed program, not a piggy bank for deficit reduction, noting that aging baby boomers and seniors have paid into this pension program their entire working lives.  According to AARP polls, older Americans expect their elected representatives in Washington to fiscally secure Social Security for future generations and keep the promise Congress made 78 years ago: that this retirement program would provide a financial safety network in their later years.

             According to Sweet, the proposed chained CPI is a flawed policy that will hit Social Security beneficiaries in their pocketbook. Each year the Social Security Administration (SSA) makes the determination, based on market prices, whether to adjust the Social Security payment to beneficiaries and, if so, by how much.  The chained CPI is a formula that assumes that people will simply buy cheaper products.  “But that is not the case for seniors, whose greatest expenses are health care, utilities and other costs that can’t often be replaced,” So, the chained CPI is just a term that means that the average senior will lose more than $2,000 in the next 10 years and even more after that.  It also means that people reaching retirement age and/or planning for retirement will have even more of a reduction.

             Furthermore, Sweet finds it extremely disappointing that a Democrat President would offer, as an opening gambit in the budget process, a reduction in Social Security benefits by using a new and inappropriate method for computing Cost Of Living Adjustments (COLAs).  In fact, Social Security, a program that pays for itself and has never run a deficit, should not be used to offset deficits in other programs. We should be talking about how to strengthen the program, not reducing it, she states.

 State Pension Changes Hits Retirees, Too

             But, with Social Security COLA cuts looming if Congress takes legislative action to endorse chained CPIs, aging baby boomers in the OceanState who will shortly retire or those already receiving their municipal or state pension checks will see less retirement income because of actions of the Rhode Island General Assembly.

                 “Any additional loss of retirement income is certainly a concern for public employees who, as a result of the 2011 slashes in their promised retirement income,” said AARP’s Connell. “Lawmakers need to understand that there are earned benefits. People plan their retirement based on what they are told they can count on – whether it is a public or private pension, or Social Security. As we have said for the past two years, Congress and the President should not address the deficit by pursuing harmful cuts to Social Security and Medicare.” 

             Sweet agrees stating that “Rhode Island was at the very front of the attack on older folks with an extraordinary coup which stripped public service retirees and workers of hard earned compensation for their work. They called it “pension reform”, but that is not what it was.  Everyone knows that it is not fair to change the rules in the middle of the game and certainly not after the game is over.  But that is what is happening around the country, in private and public employment.”

             Social Security and other pensions are not “entitlement programs” but more like insurance programs that you pay into with the promise and expectation of a certain coverage, notes Sweet. The aging advocate asks: “Should the insurance company be allowed to change the benefits upon payout? Should government (state or federal) cut benefits to retirees absent the most pressing of circumstances?”

             But, certainly in the case of Social Security, there is no emergency, but rather a timely need to insure that the program can continue to fulfill its mission, she says.

             Robert A. Walsh, Jr., Executive Director of NEA, National Education Association Rhode Island, representing 12,000 members in education and in city and state government, refers to the recalculation of COLAs by using chained CPIs as “voodoo economics.”  While supporters of this recalculation policy note it reins in Social Security costs, they should at least be honest about the fact that it personally hits the retiree financially, right in their checks, he says.  “If you’re going to cut people’s COLAs, just be honest about it,” he says.

             Many of Walsh’s union members only receive their city or state pension as they are not eligible for Social Security benefits. People retired with certain expectations [as to what retirement income they had] and to make pension changes after they retire is patently unfair, says Walsh, noting they had no opportunity to plan for the decreased income.

             Throughout the nation there is a growing movement of aging baby boomers and seniors, fueled by AARP’s educational efforts, who tell Congress to simply  “Leave Social Security Alone”.  Strengthen it for future generations, they say.

             Sweet and millions of others tell Washington politicians that “Social Security is not a cookie jar to fund other programs.”   Sweet says you can make this known to Rhode Island’s Congressional Delegation, Senators Reed and Whitehouse, Representatives Cicciline and Langevin, by attending the upcoming “community conversations.”  Support their position opposing the change in the COLA and urge them to support Social Security by leaving it out of any budget deal, she urges. 

             Herb Weiss LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based writer who covers health care, aging and medical issues.  He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com