House Bill to Expand, Strengthen Social Security

Published in Woosocket Call on February 3, 2019

With the 116th Congress kicking off on January 3, 2019 and the Democrats seizing control of the House, it did not take long for a bill to emerge that would strengthen and expand the nation’s Social Security program. Seven years ago, when U.S. Congressman John Larson (D-CT) first introduced the Social Security 2100 Act during the 113th Congress, the GOP controlled Congress blocked a fair hearing and vote. Now, with a Democratic majority in the House Larson’s Social Security proposal will finally get a thorough review as Democrats take control of the House Ways and Means, Energy and Commerce, and Education and Labor. These committees have oversight of Social Security.

Larson chose to throw the bill into legislative hopper on the 137th anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s birth, who signed Social Security into law in 1935.

On January 30, 2019, Larson, recently appointed to chair of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security, introduced H.R.860, the Social Security Act 2100 Act, with over 202 House Democrats cosponsors (including Rhode Island Representatives David N. Cicilline and James R. Langevin), to ensure the retirement security of working Americans for another century.

Passage of the Social Security 2100 Act only requires a simple majority vote of 218 lawmakers. With 235 Democratic lawmakers sitting in this chamber, it is expected to pass. But, with the Senate-controlled by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his GOP caucus, it will be difficult for Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to see their companion measure make it to the Senate floor for a vote.

H.R. 860’s eight provisions expand benefits for 62 million Social Security beneficiaries. It would provide an across-the-board benefit increase for current and new beneficiaries that is the equivalent of 2 percent of the average benefit. It also calls for an improved cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), through adopting a CPI-E formula, that takes into account the true costs (include health care expenses) incurred by seniors and a stronger minimum benefit set at 25 percent above the poverty line, tied to their wage levels to ensure that the minimum benefit does not fall behind. Finally, the bill would ensure that any increase in benefits from the bill do not result in a reduction in SSI benefits or loss of eligibility for Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program. Finally, 12 million Social Security recipients will receive a tax cut through the eliminating the tax on their benefits.

Increasing the Financial Solvency of Social Security

According to an independent analysis of the Social Security’s Office of the Chief Actuary, H.R. 860 proposal would also strengthen and protect the Trust Funds by 75 years.

H.R. 860 would have wealthy individuals pay the same rate as everyone else. Presently, payroll taxes are not collected on wages over $132,900.
Larson’s legislation would apply the payroll tax to wages of $400,000, affecting the top 0.4% of wage earners. The bill gradually phases in an increase in the pay roll contribution rate beginning in 2020, of 50 cents per week, so that by 2043 workers and employers would pay 7.4 percent instead of 6.2 percent. Finally, the bill’s provisions would combine the Old-Age and Survivors, called Social Security, and the Disability Insurance trust funds into one Social Security Trust Fund, to ensure that all benefits will be paid.

“Social Security is a promise that after a lifetime of hard work, you should be able to retire with dignity and economic security. It’s critical that Congress preserve and strengthen this promise for years to come,” said Cicilline, who serves as Chair of the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, representing Rhode Island’s 1st congressional district.

Larson, recently appointed chair of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security, noted, “With 10,000 baby boomers becoming eligible for Social Security every day, the time to act is now. The Social Security 2100 Act will provide economic security not just for today’s seniors but for future generations too,” said Larson, as the bill was thrown into the legislative hopper.”

There have not been any significant adjustments to Social Security since 1983, when Tip O’Neill was Speaker and Ronald Reagan was President, said Larson. “It’s time for Congress and the President to come together again, just like Speaker O’Neill and President Reagan did to make this a reality, he said.

“For years, fiscal hawks have told us that the only way to ‘save’ Social Security is to cut benefits for future retirees. Congressman Larson’s bill is a resounding rebuke to those claims. The Social Security Act 2100 keeps the program financially sound for most of this century while boosting benefits for millions of beneficiaries,” said Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

Richtman says, “Congressman Larson has promised that, for the first time, this legislation will receive thorough consideration in the U.S. House, including hearings with testimony from experts and the public. We applaud him for his vision, persistence, and advocacy on behalf of America’s current and future retirees in moving this bill forward.”

Today, more than 222,000 Rhode Islanders receive Social Security benefits today. It is the most important retirement income for 4 out of 5 seniors and provides financial protections to disabled workers and families who have lost a breadwinner.

For decades, GOP lawmakers pushed its Social Security reforms by privatization, raising the retirement eligibility age and imposing stingier COLA formulas. But, national poll after poll, across party lines and age groups, revealed the public’s strong support for the nation’s retirement program.

Washington Insiders expect Larson’s Social Security bill to pass the House. While GOP Senate leadership keeps the companion measure at arms-length, the upcoming 2020 elections may well grease the legislative wheels for passage. Over 20 Republican Senate, whose seats are at serious risk, may well vote for passage with Democratic Senators.
Stay tuned…


Republicans Begin a Legislative Assault on Social Security

Published in Woonsocket Call on December 11, 2016

With the dust just settling after last month’s heated presidential 2016 election, the GOP took over the White House and maintained control of both chambers of Congress. With almost 40 days left before Obama leaves office, an emboldened GOP calls for the repeal of Obmacare and the privatization of Medicare. That said, fixing Social Security is now on their short list of domestic policies to address.

Last Thursday, the long-anticipated political skirmish over how to reform and ensure the fiscal solvency of Social Security began with Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Sam Johnson (TX-03) introducing legislation to drastically overhaul the nation’s most popular social insurance program.

In the Eyes of the Beholder

“For years I’ve talked about the need to fix Social Security so that our children and grandchildren can count on it to be there for them just like it’s there for today’s seniors and individuals with disabilities,” Johnson said in his statement introducing H.R. 6439, the Social Security Reform Act of 2016. “My commonsense plan is the start of a fact-based conversation about how we do just that. I urge my colleagues to also put pen to paper and offer their ideas about how they would save Social Security for generations to come,” he said.

Johnson’s legislative proposal seeks to overhaul the nation’s Social Security program by increasing the retirement age from 67 to 69, this change impacting people born in 1968 who will begin retiring in the mid-2030s. The basic Social Security benefit formula would also become less generous for beneficiaries… except for the poorest beneficiaries. The annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), using a Chained-Weighted CPI, would put the brakes on generous COLA increases. COLA’s would be cut for those earning over $85,000.

Circling the Wagons to Protect Social Security

Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi came out swing in a statement after Johnson’s threw his bill into the legislative hopper, charging that it would “inflict deep cuts in Social Security benefits.”

“Apparently nothing upsets House Republicans like the idea of hard-working people getting to enjoy a secure and dignified retirement. While Speaker Ryan sharpens his knives for Medicare, Chairman Johnson’s bill is an alarming sign that Republicans are greedily eying devastating cuts to Americans’ Social Security benefits as well,” Pelosi said.

She warned, “Although current retirees and those close to retirement will receive their Social Security benefits, changes are looming with a Trump administration and a Republican-controlled Congress. For younger generations all benefit cut options are expected to be put on the table.”

Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline calls Johnson’s legislative proposal a “travesty,” warning that it would “destroy Social Security as we know it by slashing the critical benefits that millions of seniors rely on to live their retirement years with dignity.”

According to Cicilline, the last time Republicans tried to eliminate Social Security during the Administration of President George W. Bush, the American people were outraged and rejected it.”

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare views Johnson’s Social Security fix legislation introduced as the 114th Congress is wrapping up, “the first salvo in the ‘War on the Working Class.’”

Rep. Johnson will no doubt re-introduce his bill in the next Congress, he predicts.

According to Richtman, Johnson’s legislative proposal cuts Social Security benefits by one third while raising the retirement age from 67 to 69. It seeks to control costs by changing the benefit-computation formula in a way that cuts benefit amounts. Finally, it cuts COLAs, too.

Richtman charges that this Social Security reform proposal would “irreparably harm the nearly 60 million Americans who currently depend on Social Security as well as future beneficiaries.”

“President-elect Trump will have a veto pen. Now is the time for Mr. Trump to re-affirm his campaign promise “not to touch” Social Security and Medicare. So far, he has been uncharacteristically silent on this vital issue. I promise that we will hold him accountable,” says Richtman.

“No one voted for massive cuts to Social Security, nor to end the program as we know it,” says Nancy Altman, founding co-director of Social Security Works, in a response to Johnson’s legislative proposal to radically change Social Security. “The Johnson plan would gradually but inexorably turn Social Security from a program that replaces wages to one that produces essentially one flat benefit, independent of how much a worker contributed,” she says.

“With Republicans in full control of the federal government, these cuts have a real chance of being passed into law. Trump needs to immediately reassure the American people that he will keep his campaign promise and veto this awful bill. He should tweet that immediately,” adds Altman.

The presidential debates and the platforms of the GOP and Democratic party reveal a stark difference as how to each party will fix the ailing Social Security program. Now is not the time to put Social Security on the chopping block. Congress must come together to hammer out bipartisan approaches to ensure the fiscal solvency for the next 100 years. .

Congressional Contenders Give Tips to Keep Social Security and Medicare Afloat

          Published June 1, 2012, Pawtucket Times

         When the creation of Social Security was debated by Congress in the 1930’s, this newly legislation was referred to as ‘socialism’ one of the many charges leveled against the program.  In 1935 this program became law.

          Over the program’s 77 years of existence, critics have continued to take political “pop at Social Security, now the nation’s largest domestic program.  Some have even charged that the program discriminated against the poor and middle class by redistributing wealth to the wealthy.  Others have even claimed that beneficiaries were getting the short end of the stick by receiving a low rate of return from their investment when compared to what they might have gotten through private retirement accounts. Over the last decade, some have even called Social Security a legalized Ponzi scheme where the money collected from payroll taxes of young workers is used to pay retirement benefits of older works who retire and file to collect Social Security, with the younger generation always picking up the tab for those ahead of them.    

          Even with the criticism leveled at the nation’s Social Security Program, aging baby boomers who are now reaching the eligible retirement age of 65 at a rate of 10,000 a day, and many of the 56 million beneficiaries receiving their monthly Social Security check, will tell you that their monthly check might mean the difference between their ability to pay their bills or sliding into poverty.\

An Ailing Social Security Programs

          With Congress and Presidential elections looming, the Social Security Trustees’ annual report was released on April 23, 2012.  The 242 page report detailed the fragile financial health of the Medicare and Social Security Trust Fund, this was not the news politicians wanted to hear as the November elections approach.  

         The nation’s media outlets churned out thousands of articles, ultimately picked up by television and cable news, reporting that the combined assets of the Old-Age and Survivors Insurance, and Disability Trust will be exhausted in 2033, three years sooner than projected last year. Meanwhile, the Program’s Disability Trust Fund will be exhausted in 2016, two years earlier than last year’s estimate.  

        The Trustee’s 2012 Report also predicted that the Medicare Part A (Hospital Insurance Trust Funds) would be exhausted by 2024, forcing the program to only cover about 87 percent of anticipated Part A Medicare expenses.    

         With the release of the 2012 Social Security Trustee Report, press releases were being generated by Administration officials and Congressional Democrats and Republicans to quickly score their political points.

          Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, one of the seven Social Security Trustees, called the recently released assessment of America’s most popular benefit program “somewhat more pessimistic than last year’s report,” warning of “the importance of building a consensus on reforms that will put these programs on a sounder financial footing.” 

         Another Social Security Trustee, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, noted that President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, had “added another 8 years to the life of Medicare”. She estimated that these reforms would save the Medicare program more than $200 billion by 2016 while lowering costs for those who have traditional Medicare by nearly $60 billion.             

          In a press release, Republican Congressman John Fleming, a medical doctor who is a member of the GOP Doctors Caucus, countered the HHS Secretary’s assessment of the effectiveness of President Obama’s health care law.  “The idea that Obamacare will save Medicare would be laughable if the health care of millions of seniors was not at stake,” he said, alleging that the President used Medicare savings to foot some of the bill for Obamacare. 

 Keeping Social Security and Medicare Solvent      

         With the backdrop of a Congressional election that can either tilt the Senate to the Republicans or continue that party’s rule of the House, orRhode Islandpolitical candidates in Congressional District 1 gear up for a political fight.   Who can go to inside the Beltway to fix an Ailing Social Security System?

       When asked to comment on the recently released 2012 Social Security Trustee’s Report, Congressman David Cicilline, representingRhode Island’s Congressional District 1 that covers northern and easternRhode Island, acknowledges the accuracy of the report’s projection that full benefits can be paid to Social Security recipients for the next two decades.  However, “we have work to do to make sure that it, along with Medicare, will be their for all future generations of Americans,” he says.

         According to the Democratic Congressman, recent studies suggest that there is no need to fundamentally revamp these programs to strengthen them and ensure their sustainability.  “Modest changes, such as lifting or eliminating the $110,100 wage cap, which would affect only the top 6% wealthiest wage earners, would be enough to keep Social Security solvent for decades to come”, he says, stressing that he has already cosponsored legislation to accomplish just that.

          Working with the other side of the aisle, Congressman Cicilline has joined his GOP colleagues to support legislation that would allow the federal government to negotiate with pharmaceutical companies on behalf of Medicare helping to lower the cost of prescription drugs for seniors. 

           As the Congressional elections draw near, Congressman Cicilline warns that some of the Tea-Party backed Republicans in Congress are proposing radical plans that would end the Medicare guarantee, privatize Social Security, or raise the retirement age. “Instead of playing politics with these important programs, we need to commit to protect and strengthen both Social Security and Medicare now and for all future generations,” he says.

            Anthony Gemma, Democratic challenger to Congressman Cicilline, has read the 2012 Social Security Trustees’ Report, too. He gives his prescription for fixing the impending insolvency in Social Security and Medicare.  “The only reasonable way to reverse this trend is to drive more money into the Trust Fund,” he tells the Pawtucket Times. 

          Gemma, who ran for this Congressional seat in 2010, had initially called for the privatization of Social Security but changed his mind after researching the issue.  Today, he calls for the creation of more jobs to fixAmerica’s ailing Social Security Program and Medicare to keep those programs solvent.  He boasts that he is the only candidate for the Congressional District 1 seat that has a plan to create jobs — one that presumes and will succeed in spite of gridlock in Congress. “Its general model is applicable to all 50 states,” he says, predicting the creation of 10,000 new jobs in theOceanStatein five years.  “New jobs equal new cash flow into the Trust Fund,” he says.

            Like Congressman Cicilline, Gemma also calls for raising the $110,100 wage cap. “to increase funding of the Trust Fund, we must raise this cap,” he says.

         “Social Security was created by Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the centerpiece of his New Deal.  Then as now, Social Security is a reflection of Democratic Party values,” adds Gemma. In his last race for Congress in 2010, Gemma claims he was the only candidate who put forth a plan to increase COLAs for Social Security recipients.  “As a member of Congress, I shall take a back seat to no one as a defender of Social Security – not just for current recipients, but also for their children and grandchildren, and for theirs.”

             On his website, Republican challenger and political newcomer Brendan Doherty  states he will commit his congressional vote to opposing any attempts to privatize Social Security or Medicare, that he will work in a bipartisan fashion to protect these programs. He will consider the recommendations set forth in theSimpson-Bowles Commission on Fiscal Responsibility, and believes that the key to fixing Medicare is addressing health care reform in a way that results in lower costs to the overall health care system.

          Ensuring the longevity of Social Security and Medicare, Doherty pledges he will root out the inefficiency, waste, and fraud in the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income Programs (SSDI).  With limited checks and balances for theses programs, some “may game the system at the expense of those who are truly in need,” he says. 

           As to ensuring the survival of Medicare, Doherty looks to using global health care reform to contain spiraling health care costs and rooting out Medicare fraud by the sharing of information, stiffer sentences, and increasing the number of investigators to find and prosecute those financially abusing the program.

          Doherty has put one fix on the table not offered by either of his Democratic challengers. On March 9, 2012, on Channel 12 Newsmakers, the Republican candidate came out in support of Social Security reform and said he favored establishing a “cut-off point” for future beneficiaries. “Let’s come up with a cut-off point, like 1960 or 1959,” he said. “Those people would only… It would take them another couple of weeks to get that benefit and then it’s just graduated. So it would be a few weeks, by birth date. So, when you say ‘10 years out,’ it could affect people 10 years out.”

        Doherty’s leaning to embrace Simpson-Bowles Commission-like recommendations to keep Social Security a float would be opposed by Democrats including groups like Strengthen Social Security a coalition of 300 state-level and national groups, representing unions, health care and senior groups.  The Washington-based coalition charges that this plan would “end Social Security as we know it” by reducing COLAs, raising the retirement age to 69 and earliest eligibility to 64, and even ending the link between benefits and earnings.

 Wait and See…

             Fixing Social Security is a high priority for aging baby boomers and seniors and will be a key domestic issue to be discussed by Congressional candidates looking for votes to put them into office inWashington,DCnext November.   According to an AARP survey, taken in January 2012, of respondents age 50 and over, Social Security and Medicare ranked three out of 13 issues, with job growth and rising health care costs being number one and two respectively.

          AARP Rhode Island, the Ocean State’s Rhode Island’s largest aging advocacy group, is gearing up to gather grassroots feedback from “Outside the Beltway” to bring to Congress as the lawmakers begin their debates as to how to bolster the solvency of Social Security.  

             “’You’ve Earned a Say’ is giving the American people a strong and visible voice in the Social Security and Medicare discussion,” says AARP Rhode Island State Director Kathleen S. Connell. “We are reaching out to our 130,000Rhode Islandmembers and nationally to nearly 40 million members. In June, we will advance the discussion by giving everyone access to clear, non-partisan explanations of all the options that are on the table.

             “AARP is exercising its power to move this critical discussion from behind closed doors in Washingtonout into mainstream America,” Connell added. “People who have paid into Social Security represent a large part of the population. They and those who are working and paying into the fund today deserve – indeed, have earned – a say in how we chart the future.”  

            As noted, while both Democratic and Republican candidates in the upcoming Congressional District 1 campaign seek common solutions to strengthening Social Security and Medicare, there are philosophical differences.  When the dust settles, whoever wins represents our interest in the upcoming, historic debates.  Partisan bickering may well be silenced by educated voters, those who take the time to understand the issues and demand both the Democratic and Republican Parties work together on their behalf.  It is as simple as that…

           Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical care issues.  His Commentaries appear in two Rhode Island Daily’s The Pawtucket Times and the Woonsocket Call.