Block a Grand Bargain with Bold Progressive Solutions to Social Security and Medicare

Oct 21, 2013Richard Kirsch

Going into the post-shutdown budget discussions, progressives should take the offensive with proposals that would fix problems with Social Security and Medicare without any cuts.

Republicans may not have succeeded in defunding the nations’ newest social insurance program, ObamaCare, but they now are aiming at the foundational programs, Social Security and Medicare. And this time, they’ll have the President on their side. It would be a mistake for progressives to assume that a grand budget bargain will fall apart once again, even if that remains likely. Instead, we need to turn the debate from cutting social insurance to strengthening both the finances and benefits of both big retiree programs. The best way to do that is by championing simple, bold solutions.

In his post shutdown press conference, President Obama repeated his call for changes in Social Security and Medicare. His 2014 budget included cuts to benefits for both.  That aligns him with House Speaker John Boehner, who called for savings in Social Security and Medicare during the shutdown battle. Senators from both parties have shown their willingness to support benefit cuts as part of a big budget deal.

Yes, it is likely that the next attempt to reach an overall budget deal will also collapse, as the last ones have, particularly in the beginning of an election year. The biggest barrier to a bad deal up to now has been Democratic insistence, repeated on the same day as the President’s press conference by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, that tax hikes – with revenue coming from big corporations and the wealthy –be part of the deal. But if Republicans were willing to close some corporate tax loopholes – which some of their tea party members see correctly as examples of crony capitalism – Democrats would be under tremendous pressure from the President and others in their party to go along.

Progressives must rely on more than saying “hands off Social Security and Medicare,” although that should remain central to our message. We need a strong offense, to go with that potent defense. By putting forward simple, broadly popular, progressive proposals that actually enhance benefits and add money to Social Security and Medicare, we enable Democratic allies in Congress to set the agenda and counter claims that they are not taking action to address the real solvency problems. And we also help set the agenda for the inevitable future deal to address both programs’ financing.

Here are two simple, popular, powerful proposals. On Social Security, make the richest 5% people pay into Social Security on all their earnings, just like 95% of workers now do. Use the new revenue to both boost Social Security benefits – which are too low – and extend the solvency of the Social Security Trust fund. On Medicare, slash the cost of prescription drug prices just like the Veterans Administration and all our global competitors do, saving hundreds of billions of dollars in the next decade.

The Social Security proposal has been introduced in both houses of Congress, with legislation by Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa (S.567) and Rep. Linda Sanchez of California (H.R.3118), which would boost benefits in two ways: changing the way benefits are calculated (designed to particularly help low-and-moderate income seniors) and changing the inflation adjuster Social Security uses to the CPI-E, which more accurately captures what seniors pay. This is exactly the opposite of the chained CPI proposed by President Obama, which undercounts what seniors typically purchase. The legislation raises the money to pay for the benefits and extends the Trust Fund by gradually removing the cap on earnings taxed by Social Security, which is $113,700 in 2013. Doing so would extend the period during which the Trust Fund has enough money to pay all benefits from 2033 to 2049.

Progressives have long talked about Medicare using its enormous purchasing power to get the same kind of low drug prices paid by the Veterans Administration or every other country on the globe. While estimates of the savings vary, they clearly would be substantial, tens of billions each year, much more than the cuts to Medicare included in the President’s budget. There are two bills in Congress that aim to do this, one sponsored by Vermont Rep. Peter Welch and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and the other introduced by Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky and Senator Dick Durbin. While neither is designed to get the maximum savings – a combination of the approaches taken in each is needed – either would work to make the point that we can strengthen Medicare by stopping the drug companies from ripping off the country.

But having legislation is really window dressing to the strategy here: offering bold, popular solutions that deal with both sides of the problems facing Social Security and Medicare: benefits that are too small for the retirement security of seniors and the shortfalls in financing of both programs. While elites want to focus on the “entitlement crisis,” the public is well aware of the financial pressures most seniors now face and the looming retirement crisis, and is adamantly opposed to cuts in both programs.

It is up to progressives, inside and outside of Congress, to seize the moment. It’s a simple message: instead of making painful cuts to Social Security and Medicare we can boost benefits for seniors and make sure that the programs are there for the long term by having millionaires pay into Social Security like everyone else and stopping drug companies from ripping off Americans. 

Driving this message will turn the grand bargain debate on its head, and will start setting the terms for progressive solutions when Congress does take action on both programs in the next few years. 

Richard Kirsch is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a Senior Adviser to USAction, and the author of Fighting for Our Health. He was National Campaign Manager of Health Care for America Now during the legislative battle to pass reform.

 

Social Security cards banner image via Shutterstock.com

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