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What the GOP’s Sleight of Hand Budgeting and Deflection Politics Means for Social Security & Medicare

First pulished on Huffington Post by Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO

Any good magician will tell you, the best tricks depend on misdirection. So while all eyes are on the spectacle of the House GOP’s in-fighting, its search for a new Speaker and the never-ending “who-insulted-who” shenanigans of the GOP Presidential primary, it’s easy to forget that Congress is now also quietly working on legislation that could impact virtually every American family, especially those that depend on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The American people must not be distracted by the ongoing political show to the point that they miss the real action occurring behind the scenes.

Before leaving for recess in December, Congress faces legislative deadlines to avoid a government shutdown, a default, an extension for transportation funding and tax breaks. While the shutdown has been narrowly averted, the annual appropriations process continues as the President and Congressional Democrats push GOP leaders for a deal to mitigate automatic across-the-board cuts to defense and non-defense programs – also known as the “sequester.” 

No amount of political magic can hide the fact that three years of sequester caps have had serious consequences for important seniors programs, including the Older Americans Act and the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, along with service reductions at Social Security Administration field offices. That’s why the National Committee supports the President’s plan to increase spending caps. However, some conservatives in Congress insist that relief for programs like the Older Americans Act be paid for by cutting Medicare and Medicaid. This budgetary sleight-of-hand could trade partial relief for some seniors’ programs by cutting other essential health security programs like Medicare and Medicaid, thus further eroding the tenuous economic situation many older Americans face.

It’s no mystery where these Medicare and Medicaid cuts are likely to come from. You have to look no further than the GOP Budget plan for a blueprint of the House leadership’s favorite benefit cut proposals, such as:

  • Ending the Medicaid joint federal/state financing partnership and replacing it with fixed dollar amount block grants, giving states less money than they would receive under current law. 
  • Repealing Medicaid expansion. Since 2014, states have had the option to receive federal funding to expand Medicaid coverage. Over half of the states have expanded their Medicaid programs, and others will likely do so in the future.  Repealing this option would result in at least 14 million people losing their Medicaid coverage and state Medicaid programs would lose a total of $900 billion over 10 years. 
  • Cutting Medicare by $431 billion over ten years.  Over half of Medicare beneficiaries had incomes below $23,500 per year in 2013, and they are already paying 23 percent of their average Social Security check for Medicare cost-sharing in addition to out-of-pocket costs.

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare has prepared a detailed look at the many policy options in our Fall Budget Outlook brief.

Legislation may need to be enacted by late November or early December to allow the government to continue borrowing and avoid a government default.  Allowing a default would result in an economic catastrophe and jeopardize the payment of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits. In addition, default would jeopardize Medicare and Medicaid payments to doctors and hospitals and coverage for prescription drugs, which are critical to the health security of millions of Americans.

As if all of this isn’t enough, funding for the nation’s roads and public transit will also expire at the end of October.  Because the Highway Trust Fund no longer takes in enough gasoline tax revenue to cover surface transportation costs, Congress must come up with more funding.  When Congress passed a temporary funding fix this summer, House leaders proposed using Social Security funds to pay for it.  This was the third time in little over a year that Congress has attempted to use Social Security and/or Medicare as an ATM to pay for a completely unrelated priority.  Last year Congress voted to extend the Medicare sequester cuts into 2024 to cover a reversal of cost-of-living cuts to veterans' pension benefits. This summer Medicare was cut again to help pay for the Trade bill.  Rather than consider tax reform for huge corporate tax dodgers sending billions of profits oversee to avoid paying taxes, GOP leaders tried again (unsuccessfully this time) to cut benefits to seniors, people with disabilities and their families who depend on Social Security to pay for highways.  Unfortunately, Congress could pull this outrageous strategy out of its hat once again.  Need money for highways, to relieve sequester cuts, deficit reduction or anything at all? Voila!  Let’s take if from Social Security and Medicare.

There’s no doubt about it -- it will take more than legislative smoke and mirrors and political magic for Congress to get the job done right. But the American people also need to be more than an audience in this process.  We need to pull back the curtain on this benefit cut agenda so the American people can avert any surprises Congressional leaders have up their sleeves for vital programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

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Budget Squabbling and Its Potential Impact on Social Security & Medicare

The Office of Management and Budget is monitoring congressional actions and preparing to instruct agencies when they should begin implementing shutdown plans as funding our nation’s programs languishes amid the GOP-led Congress’ squabbling over defunding Planned Parenthood. One week prior to a potential lapse in appropriations, the OMB is expected to hold a meeting with senior agency officials to begin planning for the shutdown.

With the clock ticking, Congress is scrambling to not only avoid a government shutdown and default but also pass an extension for transportation funding and tax breaks. Will the sequester continue or can Congress find a better way to manage our nation’s finances?  This political gamesmanship and inability to get anything done impacts far more than one federal program.  Seniors programs like Social Security and Medicare are also in the cross-hairs.

“America’s seniors have become especially weary of these Congressional dramas as they have learned, the hard way, that Social Security and Medicare have become the favored target for budget cuts or “pay-fors” for a host of Congressional programs that have nothing to do with providing the earned benefits seniors depend on.  From highways to trade and beyond, Congress continues to try and use seniors’ programs as a national ATM. The next few weeks promises more of the same”... Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare has prepared a detailed Fall Legislative Update mapping the current legislative minefield for programs which touch the lives of virtually every American family.

We’ve identified the numerous legislative hurdles still ahead, the possible threats to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and our positions on each potential pay-for or budget cut.  You can see NCPSSM’s Fall Legislative Update here. 

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The President’s Budget Plan -Good News and Bad News for America’s Seniors

 Reaction from National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare President/CEO, Max Richtman on the President's Budget: 

“We’re glad to see President Obama respond to the GOP majority’s Social Security hostage-taking by including language in his 2016 budget allowing the routine rebalancing of the Trust Funds. Threatening people with disabilities with a 20% benefit cut unless there are broader Social Security benefit cuts plays politics with the livelihoods of 11 million Americans and their families rather than resolving this imminent funding issue. We applaud the President for taking a stand against this Social Security ploy.  The President also included increased funding for the Social Security Administration which is desperately needed by an agency that’s been forced to reduce local office hours, cut back on consumer services, and increase the wait time for disability hearings. We urge Congress to approve this Social Security Administration budget.

While the President’s budget thankfully no longer includes cuts to Social Security, through the Chained-CPI proposal, his 2016 plan unfortunately still targets seniors by shifting more costs to Medicare beneficiaries through increased means-testing, premium hikes and co-pays. While some tout increasing means testing in Medicare as a way to insure ‘rich’ seniors pay their share, the truth is, the middle-class will take this hit as well.

Medicare has been means-tested since 2007 and the number of beneficiaries subject to higher premiums has been increasing.  If passed, the President’s means testing proposal will hurt middle-class individuals and flies in the face of his budget theme of ‘middle-class’ economics.  The economic realities facing America’s middle-class retirees are ignored by these provisions which shift even more costs onto seniors and exacerbate the retirement deficit gap millions of Americans face now and into the future. These Medicare proposals are especially worrisome given the fact that with the new GOP majority in Congress, passage of these cost-shifting plans can happen with a simple majority vote in the Senate posing a serious threat to millions of American seniors.” ...Max Richtman, NCPSSM President/CEO

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Social Security & Medicare: So Much More than Numbers on a Spreadsheet

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare is commemorating Black History Month with blog posts from a number of the nation’s leading policy analysts, lawmakers, and community leaders.  We’ll examine the importance of programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid to the African American community while also paying tribute to generations of African Americans who have struggled with adversity to achieve full citizenship in American society. 

Nevada Congressman Steven Horsford  comes to  the  113th Congress as a strong advocate for Social Security and Medicare based on his own personal experience with the vital role these programs play in the lives of American families.  


Rep. Steven Horsford  - (D) Nevada’s 4th District

Medicare and Social Security are sometimes referred to as “entitlements.” In reality, they are promises. They are social insurance programs that prevent poverty in our golden years and they help our parents and grandparents live the comfortable and dignified retirement they deserve. These programs keep America’s promise to our seniors and protect the health of the most vulnerable.

The debate over funding for our social insurance programs can sometimes get lost in spreadsheets and numbers. Ultimately, however, these programs are about people. I know this all too well.

When I was a young boy, my grandmother suffered a stroke and fell into a coma. When she awoke, half of her body was paralyzed, and from there on out she spent the final 27 years of her life moving from nursing home to nursing home, depending on where beds and resources were available.  At a young age, I had no idea that Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid were a crucial part of my grandmother’s life support.  But they were.

I visited her every week.  Those trips to her bedside are still with me today, and they are a constant reminder that when we cut the budget, we are not just talking about numbers.  We are talking about people. We are talking about our families and the ones we love. We are talking about my grandmother.

So, we will get our debt under control, but we will not cut our way to prosperity, and we will not neglect our most vulnerable citizens in the process.  We will not take a hatchet to our safety net.  It’s just not right, especially while corporations continue to receive trillions of dollars in special tax breaks. 

Members of my district are also uniquely affected by proposals to defund Medicare and Social Security.  Hispanics make up 27% of the population in Nevada’s 4th Congressional District, and African-Americans make up 16%. Devastating cuts to social insurance programs would be amplified for many of my constituents. Two-thirds of African-Americans and Hispanics have incomes below $22,500 post-retirement, and many rely solely on Medicare to receive health services. How can we say that these constituents, who live with so little and receive the bare minimum in benefits, are part of a “spending problem?”

Medicare and Social Security serve as important and necessary programs to keep seniors healthy.  We cannot go back on a promise for safe retirement and health benefits. Our seniors have built their future around the existence of programs they have paid into for years. For my grandmother and my constituents, I vow to fight to protect these programs.


Join the conversation with Congressman Horsford online via:



Congressional Website

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Social Security and Capitol Hill

Now that the White House and GOP budgets are out it’s time for both sides to start explaining them.  The White House team has been on Capitol Hill testifying before Congress.  This is our favorite bit of testimony so far, between Sen. Bernie Sanders and  OMB Director, Jack Lew, on the role Social Security plays (or doesn’t as the case may be) in our national debt.  Go Bernie… House Ways and Means Committee Democrats came out swinging against the GOP budget provisions for Social Security.  Their news release said:

“The 2011 budget plan presented this week by the House Republican Majority strips $1.7 billion away from the Social Security Administration (SSA) for the remainder of the year, a cut so drastic that SSA would need to impose the equivalent of a month of furloughs.  The entire agency would have to shut down all operations for 20 working days.  The phones would not be answered, field offices would be closed, and claims processing would halt.  Over half a million new retirees, disabled workers and survivors would be forced into a backlog before they could receive the benefits they earned.”
And then, just in case you missed the full White House News conference yesterday, here are a few of President Obama's Social Security comments.  We clearly have work ahead of us:
THE PRESIDENT: Now, you talked about Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.  The truth is Social Security is not the huge contributor to the deficit that the other two entitlements are.I'm confident we can get Social Security done in the same way that Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill were able to get it done, by parties coming together, making some modest adjustments.  I think we can avoid slashing benefits, and I think we can make it stable and stronger for not only this generation but for the next generation. Medicare and Medicaid are huge problems because health care costs are rising even as the population is getting older.  And so what I've said is that I'm prepared to work with Democrats and Republicans to start dealing with that in a serious way.  We made a down payment on that with health care reform last year.  That's part of what health care reform was about.  The projected deficits are going to be about $250 billion lower over the next 10 years than they otherwise would have been because of health care reform, and they’ll be a trillion dollars lower than they otherwise would have been if we hadn’t done health care reform for the following decade. But we're still going to have to do more.  So what I've said is that if you look at the history of how these deals get done, typically it’s not because there’s an Obama plan out there; it’s because Democrats and Republicans are both committed to tackling this issue in a serious way. THE PRESIDENT:  Well, we're going to be in discussions over the next several months.  I mean this is going to be a negotiation process.  And the key thing that I think the American people want to see is that all sides are serious about it and all sides are willing to give a little bit, and that there’s a genuine spirit of compromise as opposed to people being interested in scoring political points. Now, we did that in December during the lame duck on the tax cut issue.  Both sides had to give.  And there were folks in my party who were not happy, and there were folks in the Republican Party who were not happy.  And my suspicion is, is that we’re going to be able to do the same thing if we have that same attitude with respect to entitlements. But the thing I want to emphasize is nobody is more mindful than me that entitlements are going to be a key part of this issue -- as is tax reform.  I want to simplify rates.  And I want to, at the same time, make sure that we have the same amount of money coming in as going out. Those are big, tough negotiations, and I suspect that there’s going to be a lot of ups and downs in the months to come before we finally get to that solution.  But just as a lot of people were skeptical about us being able to deal with the tax cuts that we did in December but we ended up getting it done, I’m confident that we can get this done as well. THE PRESIDENT: Well, the fiscal commission put out a framework.  I agree with much of the framework; I disagree with some of the framework.  It is true that it got 11 votes, and that was a positive sign.  What's also true is, for example, is, is that the chairman of the House Republican budgeteers didn’t sign on.  He’s got a little bit of juice when it comes to trying to get an eventual budget done, so he’s got concerns.  So I’m going to have to have a conversation with him, what would he like to see happen. I’m going to have to have a conversation with those Democrats who didn’t vote for it.  There are some issues in there that as a matter of principle I don't agree with, where I think they didn’t go far enough or they went too far.  So this is going to be a process in which each side, both in -- in both chambers of Congress go back and forth and start trying to whittle their differences down until we arrive at something that has an actual change of passage. And that's my goal.  I mean, my goal here is to actually solve the problem.  It’s not to get a good headline on the first day.  My goal is, is that a year from now or two years from now, people look back and say, you know what, we actually started making progress on this issue. THE PRESIDENT:  This is a matter of everybody having a serious conversation about where we want to go, and then ultimately getting in that boat at the same time so it doesn’t tip over.  And I think that can happen. THE PRESIDENT: And all of us agree that we have to cut spending, and all of us agree that we have to get our deficits under control and our debt under control. And all of us agree that part of it has to be entitlements. But, look, I was glad to see yesterday Republican leaders say, how come you didn’t talk about entitlements?  I think that’s progress, because what we had been hearing made it sound as if we just slashed deeper on education or other provisions in domestic spending that somehow that alone was going to solve the problem. So I welcomed -- I think it was significant progress that there is an interest on all sides on those issues.
Actually,  most Americans don’t agree "entitlements" should be a part of this deficit conversation.

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