Aging Groups Gear Up to Oppose Cuts in Social Security

Published in Pawtucket Times & Woonsocket
Call, October 18, 2013

Worried Americans woke up to good news yesterday morning. After weeks of political bickering Congress had finally hammered out a political compromise, one that would keep the nation from free-falling off the fiscal cliff.

Over the weeks, Democrats and political pundits had warned that not raising the nation’s debt ceiling by Oct. 17 could lead to the nation’s credit rating being downgraded. If this occurred, average Americans might see higher interest rates for mortgages, car loans, student loans and even credit cards. Higher business expenses, due to expensive borrowing rates, could even force businesses to stop hiring and start laying people off. Housing prices would drop and retail sales slow.

Because of Congressional gridlock, furloughed federal workers, along with the unemployed, would have less money to spend, reinforcing the negative impact on the nation’s economy.

House GOP leadership, catering to its Tea Party allies, led a political impasse between the Democratic-led Senate and President Obama, with demands that the president’s signature “Obamacare” healthcare law be defunded.

But, on the heels of an 11th hour deal, late Wednesday evening, the Senate passed, 81 to 18, a bipartisan temporary fix, supported by a large majority of Senate Republicans, ending the partial federal government shutdown and the threat of default. Hours later, the Tea Party-controlled House conceded to the political reality that any attempt to derail the Senate compromise would have a serious backlash against the GOP brand, passing the measure by 285 to 144.

On day 16 of the closing of the federal government, President Obama with the flick of his pen signed the bill ending the threat of the nation defaulting on paying its bills along with allowing hundreds of thousands of federal workers to return to their jobs.

This agreement raised the U.S. debt ceiling until Feb. 7 and gave the Treasury Department flexibility to temporarily extend its borrowing if Congress does not act before that date. Also, the measure keeps the federal government’s doors open until Jan. 15.

At the end of the Congressional vote, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) and his House Tea Party allies saw their efforts fail to delay or to scrap “Obamacare.” However, the GOP Senator did get lawmakers to make a tiny political concession to require the government to verify the eligibility of people receiving federal subsidies under the health care program.

Domestic Entitlements on Chopping Block

Of concern to aging groups, the agreement calls for creating a 12 member House-Senate bipartisan panel that would identify long-term deficit cuts, either overhauling the nation’s tax code or by identifying cuts in entitlement programs like Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security. The panel, led by Budget Committee heads Republican Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, is charged with completing its task by December 13, but they are not required to come to an agreement.

“While Washington’s latest self-imposed crisis is over, this is no time to celebrate as another set of random deadlines loom, says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, remarking “Here we go again.”

“Yet another committee has been formed in which Social Security and Medicare are the big bargaining chips on Washington’s political poker table, noted Richtman, making it clear for him the “economic security of millions of Americans isn’t a game” .

“And while the vast majority of the American people do not support cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits, the President and some in Congress appear ready to do just that through proposals like the Chained CPI, expanding Medicare means testing to the middle class and raising the retirement age,” warns Richtman.

According to Richtman, President Obama stated “what’s good for the American people” is what should guide this next debate. “Cutting benefits to millions of middle-class Americans who took the biggest hit in the recession clearly does not fit that stated goal,” he says.

In a letter to Congress, Richtman, called for other ways to rein in the nation’s budget huge deficient rather than putting Social Security on the chopping block. Richtman suggests that “instead of cutting benefits, comprehensive reforms in the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that are containing costs in the entire health care sector, including Medicare and Medicaid, ought to be given a chance to work and to be strengthened.”

“Moreover, Social Security does not face an immediate crisis and is not driving either the short-term deficit or long-term debt. We believe Social Security should be strengthened for the long-term by raising the current payroll tax cap on earnings,” adds Richtman.

AARP, the nation’s largest aging advocacy group, was quick to comment on the bipartisan-brokered legislative deal, saying that “AARP is pleased that the President and Congress temporarily averted an economic crisis that threatened our members’ access to Social Security and Medicare, but we are deeply concerned that harmful cuts to these vital programs are on the table for a new round of budget negotiations.”

The statement acknowledges that “some Congressional lawmakers want to trade cuts to Medicare and Social Security benefits to pay for other government spending. Others are calling for cuts to these vital programs to reduce the deficit.” However, according to AARP polls, “the American people, on the other hand, across all ages and party lines, are strongly opposed to cuts to Social Security and Medicare.”

“Whether it is cutting their programs to reduce the deficit or using them as a piggy bank to pay for other government spending, their message to the President and Congress is clear: “Don’t bargain away my Medicare and Social Security benefits,” says the AARP statement.

As the House/Senate Bipartisan Committee begins to organize, AARP is preparing to mobilize its massive membership to block any attempts to slash Social Security bennies or cut Medicare, specifically through a Chained CPI to determine cost of living increases and any reductions in Medicare benefits.

Susan Sweet, a well-known aging advocate clearly sees that a Congressional tinkering with Social Security could severely hit the pocketbooks of older Rhode Islanders. She asks, “Is it too much to ask that seniors, disabled people and veterans not pay the price of huge farm subsidies for agribusiness corporations, disgraceful and unnecessary tax benefits for gargantuan oil companies that are making their biggest profits ever, and wasteful pentagon spending for projects in war zones that are either never built or are soon destroyed?”

She calls on Rhode Island’s Congressional delegation to “stay strong and not compromise on keeping Medicare and Social Security fulfill its promises to seniors, disabled people and veterans by keeping benefits at current levels.”

“Dollars to cut the federal deficit might just come from extra revenues which could be generated from allowing Medicare to negotiate with drug companies and lifting the Social Security payroll tax cap so that wealthy people pay the same rate as middle class and poor people,“ she says.

AARP Gears Up for a Fight

This week AARP launched a series of radio and print ads opposing a Chained CPI Social Security benefit cut and harmful cuts to Medicare in the nonprofit organization’s latest discussion of the nation’s fiscal issues. The print and radio ads target members of the House and Senate in 18 states. The ads follow letters to Congress and the White House, as well as postcards, e-mails and calls to members of Congress opposing a budget deal that would balance the budget on the backs of older Americans.

“Americans have paid into Medicare and Social Security and they’re tired of their hard-earned benefits being used as bargaining chips in another last-minute budget deal,” said AARP Senior Vice President Joyce Rogers. “They deserve responsible solutions that will strengthen Medicare and Social Security now and for future generations, not harmful cuts that will hurt all of us.”

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. His weekly commentaries can be found on his blog, herbweiss.wordpress.com. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

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Defining Brendan Doherty: Romney Republican or Moderate

 Published September 28, 2012, Pawtucket Times

            With the upcoming November election just six weeks away, Republican Candidate Brendan Doherty held a news conference last Tuesday at Memorial, attempting to distance himself from House GOP leadership and from Mitt Romney, the Republican Party’s anointed Presidential candidate.

Surrounded by a backdrop of the 294 bed CommunityHospital in Pawtucket’s East Riverview Neighborhood, Doherty, the GOP challenger to Democratic Rep. David Cicilline, came before seniors and supporters to do political damage control, with an agenda to set the public record straight about his positions on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

Keeping Social Security, Medicare off the Chopping Block

Charging that Cicilline was misleading to voters on his positions on the nation’s most popular domestic programs, the Republican Candidate pledged his opposition to “privatization” of the nation’s Social Security Program, calling for Congress to keep the Social Security and Medicare programs off the budgetary chopping block.  The former state police superintendent, looking to become Rhode Island’s newest Congressman for the First Congressional District, also supported increased benefits for seniors already enrolled in the Social Security Program.

At the morning news conference, Doherty warned that he has no “secret plan” to cut Social Security and Medicare, as Cicilline charges.  He chastised the Freshman Congressman and his Democratic political operatives for using scare tactics and misleading political rhetoric to fuel a misinformation campaign to link him to Republican Presidential Candidate, Mitt Romney and his running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan’s support for a Medicare voucher program.  Doherty stated that a voucher system would shift healthier Americans to private insurance plans and leave the sickest and frailest American’s in a weakened version of traditional Medicare.

Putting the Spot Light on Fraud and Waste

Doherty, calling himself an “independent thinker” a “centrist” who pledged to reach across the aisle to House Democrats, to pass legislation that would root out fraud and abuse in Medicare and Medicaid.  He noted that a new RAND Corporation study showed that fraud and waste in these two programs may be as high as $98 billion.

“While Congressman Cicilline often speaks of his commitment to protect Medicare from any possibility of budget cuts, he failed to take this common sense action to address the fraud, waste and abuse that accounts for at least $48 billion being diverted every year from the Medicare program and taken away from our seniors who depend on the Medicare program,” commented Doherty.

Doherty, however, looks to push for the Medicare and Medicaid Fighting Fraud and Abuse to Save Taxpayers’ Dollars Act or the Medicare Fast Act (H.R. 3399), as types of legislative proposals he could support if he were elected to Congress.

Cicilline did not mince his words after Doherty’s news conference by continuing to tie his Republican challenger to the Radical Republicans who control the House.  He charged that “My Republican opponent supports raising the retirement age for Social Security and if he got to Congress, would vote to keep the Republicans in control of the House where they would continue to push an extreme agenda that would end the guarantee of Medicare and turn it into a voucher system.”

According to the Democratic Congressman, the Preserving Our Promise to Seniors Act, whish he is a cosponsor, is the best way to extend the life of Social Security Program along with improving the Cost of Living Adjustment formula to give beneficiaries an adjustment based on the cost of goods and services that they regularly purchased.  The Democratic Congressman also opposed the raising the Social Security eligibility age or any effort to privatize the system, these changes supported by many GOP lawmakers.

Responding to the news conference, the Rhode Island Democratic Party issued a release calling Doherty’s pledge to preserve Social Security and Medicare “an empty one,” given the Republican House Leaderships efforts to slash funding for these programs for years.

Countering Doherty’s attempt to label himself a moderate, Bill Fischer, spokesperson for the RI Democratic Party called Cicilline’s Republican opponent a “Romney Republican who has clearly stated he would repeal the Affordable Care Act; raise the eligibility age on Social Security; and will vote for Republican control in Congress.”

“If Doherty were serious about protecting seniors, he wouldn’t be calling for the repeal of our historic healthcare reform,” Fischer said. “Maybe he doesn’t understand the enormous benefits Rhode Island seniors have already received since its passage. Thanks to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, 128,390 people on Medicare in Rhode Island have access to preventative health care services, such as colonoscopies and mammograms.

In Rhode Island’s First Congressional District alone, 7,300 seniors have saved over $4 million on prescription drugs because the Affordable Care Act closed the donut hole.”

TV Spot Ties Doherty to Radical Republicans

             With Doherty’s effort to distance himself from the Washington Republican agenda, Cicilline’s campaign released a new television spot, entitled “Fantastic,” to more firmly politically tie his Republican challenger to the Romney-Ryan agenda in Washington.

“At the end of the day, Brendan Doherty wants Republicans in control of Congress and Mitt Romney setting the agenda in the White House. In fact, he thinks Romney would “be fantastic for Rhode Island,’” said Cicilline campaign manager Eric Hyers, detailing the spot..

“Rhode Islanders will have a clear choice this November between re-electing President Obama and Congressman Cicilline so we can get our state back on the right track, or voting for Mitt Romney, Brendan Doherty, and the Washington Republicans who got us into this mess to begin with.”

In the 30 second spot, Doherty emphasizes his support for Romney at a March 3, 2012 candidate forum, saying, “I think he’d be fantastic for Rhode Island.”

In January 2012, Doherty formally endorsed Romney for President, describing him as a “proven leader.”  In the same month, Doherty traveled to New Hampshire to campaign for Romney and was later introduced to the Republican presidential nominee by former Rhode Island Governor Don Carcieri.

The political spot also outlines areas where Romney and Doherty agree on policy – including their support for repealing President Obama’s historic health care reform law, as well as their mutual opposition to reproductive freedoms for women and the Buffett Rule that would require millionaires to pay at least the same tax rate as the middle class.

As the Dust Settles…

Here are questions that voters in Congressional District 1 must ask themselves before they enter the polls in the November election:

Can Doherty successfully repackage himself as a moderate Republican?  If so, with a Republican-controlled House, captured by a radical Tea Party who philosophically opposes political compromise, as a moderate Republican will he vote for  Democratic initiatives that the majority of his Democratic constituents support.  Or can he stand the “heat in the kitchen” and vote against his House Republican leadership.

Can the voters forgive the former Providence Mayor, now their Congressman, for his statements made about the fiscal health of his City as he left office?  If so, they must determine if it is more important to keep this seat Democratic, in hopes of bringing the political party back to power in that Chamber.

With the November election looming, the Cicilline-Doherty political battle, truly becomes the classic “He said, She said,” debate, with the voters ultimately finding out the truth in the New Congress.

Herb Weiss is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues.