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From the category archives: entitlement reform

Farewell to Paul Ryan and His Insidious "Entitlement Reforms"

Will seniors and their families miss Paul Ryan in the U.S. Congress? Not a chance. His impending retirement lifts a dark cloud that has hung over older Americans – not to mention the poor, sick, and disabled – for nearly two decades. Speaker Ryan has spent his 11 terms on Capitol Hill fighting to enrich the wealthy and powerful, while undermining programs that serve as a lifeline for America’s most vulnerable citizens.

As America’s Privatizer-in-Chief, he spearheaded attempts to turn Medicare into a voucher program and to gamble retirees’ Social Security benefits on the whims of Wall Street.  He passed legislation in the House to cut more than $1 trillion from Medicaid by imposing per capita caps and turning it into a block grant program.  If the Senate had passed it, too, millions of low income Americans would have lost health coverage, according to projections by the Congressional Budget Office. At the end of last year, Speaker Ryan muscled-through the Trump/GOP tax giveaway to the rich and profitable corporations, inviting deep cuts to seniors’ earned benefits. “We’re going to have to get back next year [2018] at entitlement reform,” he said last December, “which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit.”

Here is a man who has been downright giddy while championing Scrooge-like policies from his powerful perch in Washington. In 2017, he gloated about gutting Medicaid in the House bill to repeal the Affordable Care Act.  “This is why I’m so excited about it… We are de-federalizing an entitlement, block-granting it back to the states, and capping its growth rate. That’s never been done before,” he told a conservative radio host. Ryan boasted at a National Review forum that he had been “dreaming” of cutting federal Medicaid funds “since you and I were drinking at a keg” – barely able to contain his glee about stripping health coverage from poor people. 

Paul Ryan was never a traditional fiscal hawk in the mold of old school Republicans.  His fondness for slashing the social safety net while cutting taxes for the rich wasn't just a matter of dollars and cents.  An acolyte of Ayn Rand’s ‘philosophy of selfishness,’ Ryan’s disdain for the poor or anyone who relied on federal benefits to survive was deeply ideological. 

"He... justified his agenda in moral terms, speaking frequently about 'makers' (i.e., people who work and earn good incomes) and 'takers' (i.e., lazy people who subsist on government assistance)." - Huffington Post, 4/11/18

At the same time, he was blatantly hypocritical, at least on Social Security. In 2005, he backed President George W. Bush’s plan to privatize the program and risk retirees’ payroll contributions on the stock market.  It’s a position he continued to hold as presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s running mate in 2012 --- and during his two-and-a-half years as Speaker.  Yet the Speaker himself was a 'taker' when he collected Social Security survivor’s benefits after his father died when Ryan was 16.  He saved up his Social Security checks to pay for college tuition, but somehow doesn’t see the irony in advocating policies that would compromise other Americans’ ability to collect their own earned benefits.

Like other ideologues, Ryan cloaked his attempts to undermine Social Security and Medicare as “preserving” or “saving” them for future generations.  He repeatedly insisted that these programs were going “bankrupt,” when, in fact, there are common sense measures that could keep both trust funds solvent for decades to come – without cutting benefits or raising eligibility ages.  But during Ryan’s Speakership, legislation to do just that never made it the floor, including bills from Rep. John Larson (D-CT) and others that would boost benefits while infusing Social Security with new revenue – or measures to allow Medicare to negotiate prescription drug prices with pharmaceutical companies.  

Ryan tried to divide the generations by vowing that any “reforms” to earned benefits wouldn’t affect current retirees – only younger folks like him, ignoring the fact that stagnant wages make it impossible for today’s workers to save enough for retirement to make up for cuts in Social Security benefits.

Thanks to the vigilance of America’s seniors and their advocates, Ryan’s fight to gut the social safety net has fizzled – so far.  But he remains as Speaker until the end of the 115th Congress and doesn’t wish to see his quest end in failure. 

“Entitlement reform is the one thing, the one other great thing [besides tax cuts] that I spent most of my career working on,” said Ryan at the press conference announcing his retirement. “More work needs to be done [on] entitlements… and I’m going to keep fighting for that.” 

Even if Ryan is unable to advance his “entitlement reform” agenda before he leaves Congress, there are other ideologues on the Hill (especially in the Freedom Caucus) who will be happy to take up the mantle. The best way for the poor, the elderly, the disabled and their families to protect and expand these crucial programs is to vote for candidates who champion Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  We’ll have the chance this November.

 

Hollow Victory for Trump & GOP is a Loss for Seniors, Working Americans

National Committee President and CEO Max Richtman issued the following statement after passage of the Trump/GOP tax plan.

“Congressional Republicans have just pulled off the biggest heist in American history – transferring trillions of dollars of wealth to the rich and profitable corporations at the expense of working and middle class Americans.  By ramming this ill-considered legislation through Congress in a reckless manner, GOP members of Congress put partisanship over people and donors over constituents.  Last-minute revisions designed to woo holdout Senators – including a change benefitting real estate moguls like President Trump – tilted the bill even further toward wealthy elites.  

It is wrong to ask the poor, the working class, and elderly to pay for tax breaks for the rich and powerful, which is exactly what the Trump/GOP tax bill will do.  The tax cuts will explode the federal debt by at least $1.5 trillion, laying the groundwork for an all-out effort to cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  House Speaker Paul Ryan and Florida Senator Marco Rubio have already promised as much in recent public statements.  Blowing up the debt for tax cuts, then claiming that there’s no choice but to cut benefits for seniors is the height of hypocrisy. As proof of Republicans’ intent, the 2018 GOP budget resolution slashes nearly $500 billion from Medicare and more than $1 trillion from Medicaid. 

The bill’s repeal of the Obamacare individual mandate will result in 13 million Americans losing coverage, and an average $1,500 hike in health insurance premiums for older adults aged 50-64.  Adopting the miserly “Chained CPI” inflation index for calculating tax brackets and deductions could easily creep into the formula for determining Social Security cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), which would cost retirees thousands of dollars in the long run.  Unfortunately, the pleas of advocates and everyday Americans demanding that Congress abandon this cynical legislation has fallen on deaf ears. But it’s a hollow victory for the GOP. While the perpetrators of the tax scam may be popping the champagne today, next November they surely will see that voters have declared the party’s over.” 

After Passing Senate Tax Bill, GOP to Target Seniors' Earned Benefits

Maybe it’s no coincidence that the Senate passed its tax bill, vampire-like, in the dead of night.  How very apropos for legislation that could lead to the lifeblood being leached out of programs that the elderly and working class depend on.  Kudos to Senator Bob Corker for being the lone Republican to stand on principle and vote against the bill.  At the same time, Senator Collins, Murkowski, McCain, and other sensible GOP members have disappointed by betraying principles they proclaimed were important during the healthcare battle, but seem to have forgotten during the tax debate.  (Among other things, the bill zeroes out the tax penalty in the Obamacare insurance mandate, which could lead to 13 millions Americans losing coverage and higher premiums for older Americans.)  

In the wake of the bill’s passage early Saturday morning, National Committee President Max Richtman made the following statement:

“Senate Republicans have just given the wealthy and multi-national corporations an early Christmas present by passing the Trump/GOP tax plan, while leaving a lump of coal for seniors and almost everyone else.  The president and his party in Congress are asking the poor, middle class, and elderly to pick up the tab for trillions of dollars in tax breaks that the super-rich and profitable corporations do not need.” - Max Richtman, NCPSSM President, 12/2/17

Senator Susan Collins’ last-minute amendment to retain the current medical expense deduction threshold (up to 10% of adjusted gross income) made the Senate bill a little more tolerable, but not by much.  The House version outright repeals the medical expense deduction – which millions of seniors rely upon to mitigate high out of pocket medical and long-term care costs.  But the biggest poison pill for the elderly in this legislation is the existential threat it poses to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  

“If enacted, the tax bill will trigger an automatic $25 billion cut to Medicare.  It blows a $1 trillion hole in the deficit, inviting deep cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. It adopts the paltry “Chained CPI” inflation index for calculating deductions and tax brackets, setting a dangerous precedent that could spill over into cost-of-living adjustments for Social Security.” – Max Richtman, NCPSSM President, 12/2/17

The Senate bill is only slightly less objectionable than the House version, which passed in November.  The two must either be reconciled in a House-Senate conference – or the House may vote on the Senate version as-is.  Republican leadership has promised to have the legislation on President Trump’s desk before the holidays, making this one of the rottenest Christmas presents the Congress has ever given the American people. 

As if to confirm the warnings of seniors’ advocates, Republicans have signaled that their next targets after the tax bill are Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid

“High-ranking Republicans are hinting that, after their tax overhaul, the party intends to look at cutting spending on welfare, Social Security, Medicare and other parts of the social safety net. House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., said recently that he wants Republicans to focus in 2018 on reducing spending on government programs.” – Washington Post

Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) admitted as much in an interview with Politico last week, declaring that spending cuts in earned benefits programs will be necessary to pay for tax cuts for the wealthy and multinational corporations.

“We need to generate economic growth which generates revenue, while reducing spending. That will mean instituting structural changes to Social Security and Medicare for the future.” – Sen. Marco Rubio, 11/29/17

Of course, by “structural changes,” Rubio really means cutting earned benefits and turning Medicare into a voucher program.  He and other GOP leaders have been pushing this agenda for years; the difference is that now they have the power to enact it, common sense, decency, or the well-being of seniors be damned.

Senator Rubio’s pronouncements further expose the phoniness of candidate Trump’s promises “not to touch” Social Security and Medicare. By championing the Trump/GOP tax plan, the President has embraced the inevitable efforts to slash both programs to close the deficit. What’s more, the President’s own 2018 budget blueprint called for more than $60 billion in cuts to Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI).  Notice that we don’t see President Trump contradicting Senator Rubio’s comments to Politico.  We can now safely say that seniors should take Republicans’ word for it:  After giving the wealthy and profitable corporations a multi-trillion-dollar holiday gift, Congress will take an axe to programs Americans have paid into for the entire working lives.

Click here for a detailed analysis of how the Senate GOP tax bill hurts seniors.

GOP Budget Resolution a "Lump of Coal" for Seniors, Middle Class

While the media have been largely consumed by the latest outrages from the White House, Republicans in Congress have been quietly working to radically redesign our tax code and cut trillions in spending that benefits ordinary Americans, including and especially seniors. With little fanfare, the Senate voted 51-49 last week to pass a cynical budget resolution that’s really a Trojan Horse for tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations. Yesterday, the House followed suit by a vote of 216-212.  

Had a few votes gone the other way, these plans would have been stopped dead in their tracks, as we witnessed with Obamacare repeal.  But the public wasn’t paying much attention, and the pressure on Congress to vote in the public interest was nowhere near as intense.

Even if some of the more heinous budget cuts fall away, the resolution is an unsettling declaration of priorities that can only be described as mean-spirited and immoral.  As Dylan Scott keenly observes in Vox:

The budget stands as a vision of what the Republican majority wants to do, and perhaps would do if it had eight or nine more votes in the Senate. It suggests that basically every Republican in each chamber (the only senator opposed was Rand Paul, who wanted deeper cuts) is comfortable aligning himself or herself with an agenda that radically cuts the social safety net for… retirees and the middle class. – Dylan Scott in Vox, 10/26/17

The GOP budget and tax scheme, which leadership would like to pass before the holidays, has been rightly described as a “lump of coal for the middle class.”  Yes, the tax plan is a big, fat Christmas gift to the wealthy, wrapped in a package of distortions.  Despite President Trump’s disingenuous claim that it helps middle income earners, 80% of the tax savings goes to the wealthiest 1% of the American people.  The rest get only a trickle of tax relief.  

Tax policy that benefits the middle class, including deductions for state and local taxes, goes out the window in this plan.  So might existing exemptions for 401K contributions, currently set at $18,000 per year.  GOP leaders have talked about significantly reducing the amount of pre-tax contributions people can make, reportedly to $2,400 per year.  (The exact details are secret, of course, until the plan is unveiled on November 1st.)  The party of personal responsibility is actually proposing to penalize Americans for saving for retirement – as some 50 million of us now do to the tune of $67 billion in tax savings per year.

The GOP would pay for massive tax breaks for the rich by cutting essential safety net programs for seniors and other vulnerable Americans.  These are among the Scrooge-like proposals in the  budget plan:

*Cuts nearly $500 billion from Medicare by privatizing the program and raising the eligibility age.

*Cuts $1.3 trillion from Medicaid over ten years, jeopardizing long term care services and supports for the elderly.

*Cuts $653 in Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for some 8 million low-income seniors and people with disabilities.

*Will likely require cuts in in Older Americans Act programs (e.g., Meals on Wheels), home heating assistance for seniors, and research into diseases affecting the elderly, including Alzheimer’s and cancer.

Meanwhile, the supposedly budget-conscious GOP has voted to allow itself to deficit-fund $1.5 trillion of the tax cut package. As the hole in the deficit grows, Republicans will then be able to come after Americans’ earned benefits – Social Security and Medicare – to try to close the gap, even though Social Security and Medicare Part A are self-funded and don’t affect general revenues.  

Of course, the long-planned assault on Medicare has already begun – with new viability now that Republicans control all branches of government. The budget resolution contains oft-told prevarications about the program:

"Medicare spending is on an unsustainable course… Given this untenable situation, the budget resolution supports work by the authorizing committees to recommend legislative solutions extending Medicare's solvency in the near term, while pursuing policies that place the program on a sustainable long-term path." – GOP 2018 Budget Resolution

The way to strengthen Medicare now and for the future is to keep the Affordable Care Act in place (which is already saving Medicare hundreds of billions) and allow the government to negotiate prescription drug prices with drug companies, for starters. 

Because Congressional leadership is forcing reckless tax cuts through the reconciliation process (where measures can pass the Senate with a simple majority), Democrats will be unable to impede this cruel juggernaut.  As we saw in the Obamacare repeal battle, it will once again fall to a handful of Republicans of conscience to put the brakes on unfair tax and budget cuts.  But they will do so only if they hear loudly and clearly from all of us.


Rep. Brat at His Worst: Spreading Myths about Social Security and Medicare

In a contentious interview with CNN’s Kate Bolduan this week, Rep. Dave Brat (R-VA) perpetuated some dangerous myths about Social Security and Medicare.  Brat, a Tea Partier and fiscal bomb thrower, has been campaigning to cut seniors’ earned benefits since first running for Congress in 2014.

The CNN interview heated up when Bolduan pressed Brat about the recently-passed deal to suspend the debt ceiling and keep the government open, which he opposed.  It’s worth quoting Brat’s answer at length here, because it is only borderline comprehensible and riddled with inaccuracies:

“I was just at my convocations back home with the kids. The kindergarteners are in the class of 2030, they just told me. They will graduate college in 2034. So if you do know the context, the context is that is the year Medicare and Social Security are insolvent. I don’t think people do know the context.  Otherwise there’d be more urgency and they wouldn’t put up with the nonsense we’re doing up here on the fiscal front. Right? If the press would weigh in on what the damage -- it’s a guaranteed fiscal crisis in 2034. Guaranteed.  In law, I’m on the budget committee, we can’t touch it.  Right--You got to pass in law.  So that’s – that’s the context and so with that; if you ask the average voter how you should vote on a clean debt ceiling increase with no fiscal discipline whatsoever, it’s the whole country 90%.”

Where to begin dissecting this statement?  The relevance of kindergarteners graduating college in 2034 notwithstanding, Social Security and Medicare will not be insolvent that year.  If Congress takes no corrective action whatsoever, the Medicare Part A Trust Fund and the Social Security Trust Funds will be depleted in 2029 and 2034, respectively.  But that does not mean the programs will be insolvent.  Revenue from workers’ payroll taxes still will be flowing in, allowing Medicare to pay 88% of full benefits and Social Security 77% --- with no further action from Washington.  In fact, the 2017 Social Security Trustees Report says there is now $2.847 trillion in the Social Security Trust Fund, which is $35.2 billion more than last year --- and that it will continue to grow with payroll contributions and interest on the Trust Fund's assets.)  

Does this mean we sit by and do nothing?  Of course not.  But Rep. Brat’s prescriptions are as draconian as his statements are inaccurate.  The Congressman has championed cutting Social Security and Medicare and raising eligibility ages as the only solution.  When running for office in 2014, he told a Tea Party crowd:

“It’s not just little marginal changes, right?  In order to avoid those insolvency issues with Medicare and Social Security, you’re going to have to do some major cuts."

According to PolitiFact, Brat went on to say that people will ‘have to work longer before receiving benefits’ – meaning raising the retirement age.  This favorite proposal of fiscal hardliners is actually a benefit cut.  And it is based on the misconception that just because average life expectancy is rising, everyone can work well past 65 – even though working class Americans (especially those doing physical labor on the job) may not be physically able to continue working into their late 60s like their wealthier counterparts.

Hardliners don’t like to talk about this, but there are other ways to keep our earned benefits fiscally sound without punishing the people who depend on them. The National Committee supports legislation by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Rep. John Larson (D-CT), and others in Congress to keep Social Security solvent without cutting benefits or raising the retirement age – mainly by lifting the payroll tax income cap so that the wealthy pay their fair share.  In fact, the Sanders and Larson bills actually boost benefits and cost-of-living increases while ensuring the fiscal health of Social Security well past those kindergartners’ 2034 graduation date. That way, those kids can count on their benefits when they retire around 2077.

But some members of Congress – and Rep. Brat in particular - ignore or dismiss these modest and manageable solutions, proposing instead that seniors shoulder the burden through benefit cuts and a higher retirement age.

Now we come to the second myth that Brat likes to propagate:  that Social Security and Medicare are major drivers of the federal budget deficit.  At that same 2014 Tea Party campaign event, Brat justified Social Security and Medicare cuts by saying:

“We’re going to have to take some bad medicine… to just balance the budget. If you don’t solve it, then in 11 years nearly all federal revenue will go only to [Social Security and Medicare].”

The fact is that Social Security has no net effect on the federal budget and contributes not one penny to the deficit. It is self-financed through workers’ payroll taxes.  Ditto for Medicare Part A.  Suggesting that these programs must be cut to balance the budget is disingenuous at best, but that doesn’t stop fiscal hardliners and the mainstream media from spreading the myth.  

Notice how Brat conflates the debt crisis with Social Security and Medicare at the end of his CNN rant.  Unfortunately, this claim is made far too often, but is hardly ever challenged by on-air journalists, this time being no exception (though, in truth, Bolduan was struggling just to control the interview).

Why do the on-air rantings of Congressman Brat matter? His arch-conservative philosophy wouldn’t be so dangerous if he were truly on the margins of political debate. But for the first time in more than a decade, fiscal hawks have the power to impose their hardline views on America’s most vulnerable citizens. Brat is a member of the House Budget Committee, which has already voted to privatize Medicare and raise the eligibility age.  That’s a powerful perch for spreading myths about Social Security and Medicare in order to justify cuts that are just plain cruel. 

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