Some bad ideas never die. Sometimes they don’t fade away, either. Proposals to create a congressionally-appointed fiscal commission are a prime example. Every few decades, Congress turns to an appointed commission to scrutinize Social Security and Medicare, either in the name of debt reduction or shoring up the programs’ trust funds. These commissions tend to focus on cutting benefits rather than the adequacy of benefits. Ultimately, they fail to find fair and viable improvements that protect seniors.
Now, ‘fiscal conservatives’ are at it again. As soon as he became House Speaker, Rep. Mike Johnson (R-La.) — who has a record of conflating Social Security with the debt — announced he would create a fiscal commission. The momentum for a fiscal commission accelerated at the end of November when the House Budget Committee held a hearing on three bills (H.R. 710, H.R. 5779 and S. 3262) to establish such a panel. Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) have introduced a debt commission bill that could ‘fast track’ changes to Social Security, bypassing the usual deliberative process.
Beneath all the rhetoric about “fiscal responsibility,” the main purpose of outsourcing important decisions to a commission is to give lawmakers political cover for cutting benefits, long part of the Republican agenda. Key Republicans and GOP presidential candidates (most prominently, Nikki Haley) have already proposed cuts mostly targeting future retirees. Members of Congress can hide behind a commission’s recommendations and avoid individual accountability. That’s why President Biden rightly called such commissions “death panels” for Social Security and Medicare.
“My fear is that a commission would (be used) by some as an excuse to slash Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other federal… programs,” Rep. Jim McGovern (D Mass.) testified before the House Budget Committee in November. “We shouldn’t pass the buck to a fiscal commission to do the work that we ourselves don’t want to do.”
Lawmakers seek the ‘cover’ of a commission because they know that Social Security and Medicare are overwhelmingly popular. In a recently released Navigator poll, some 80 percent of respondents said they want increased funding for Social Security and Medicare — and oppose cuts to either program. The public’s message is pretty clear: Hands off our earned benefits!
Nonetheless, fiscal commissions have a patina of bipartisan appeal, because they have received support from some moderate Democrats in the name of ‘fiscal responsibility.’ In so doing, these members contribute to the misleading impression that the party is open to the conservatives’ “cuts only” approach. Social Security is a legacy Democratic program, and most Democrats do not want to see it undermined. In a recent column for The Hill, AFGE president Everett Kelley referred to fiscal commissions as “a partisan wolf in bipartisan sheep’s clothing.”
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a true seniors’ champion in Congress, wrote in an op-ed that Speaker Mike Johnson “has devised an accountability-free way to gut (Social Security)… We don’t have to guess that this is what will happen, because Republicans have tried this before.”
Proponents often cite the Greenspan Commission of the early 1980s as a model for today. But that commission — whose report was the basis of some of the 1983 Social Security reforms — bears little resemblance to the commissions conservatives now propose. Unlike recent GOP proposals, the Greenspan commission’s recommendations went through ‘regular order’ in Congress, hearings were held, and amendments offered. But the new commission proposals include ‘fast-tracking’ their recommendations through Congress, bypassing regular order and insulating individual lawmakers from accountability.
Five staffers from the Greenspan Commission issued a statement in November warning: “Those who seek a fast-track commission misunderstand why the Greenspan Commission was formed, why it was able to reach agreement, and why Congress largely enacted its recommendations into law.”
In his 2010 memoir, former Greenspan commission member Robert M. Ball wrote that using the 1983 group as a model for contemporary Social Security reform is “laughable and dangerous,” adding, “A commission is no substitute for principled commitment” on the part of lawmakers.
Likewise, the Simpson-Bowles commission of the early 2010s hardly serves as an inspiring model. That deadlocked panel was unable to come to a consensus, but its two chairs issued a report calling for extensive cuts. On the Social Security side, those cuts included raising the retirement age to 69 or 70, reducing cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs), and slashing benefits for middle-class workers.
Former Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mt.) and Budget Committee chairman referred to Simpson-Bowles as a “Social Security cutting machine.” (Simpson and Bowles also proposed to cut Medicare through increased cost sharing for seniors and reduced provider reimbursements.) Fortunately, at the time, Congress did not have the appetite to take up those draconian changes.
This is not to say that Social Security and Medicare don’t need strengthening. The trust funds of each program are projected to become depleted in the next decade without action from Congress, though Social Security still would be able to pay 80 percent of benefits — and Medicare Part A, 89 percent — in that worst-case scenario.
What we are saying is that commissions which are not directly accountable to voters will recommend benefit cuts while likely shunning revenue-side solutions, including asking the wealthy to contribute their fair share. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.) both have introduced legislation which would do just that, largely by adjusting the payroll wage cap. Their bills would extend trust fund solvency for decades while modestly boosting benefits.
To the ‘deficit hawks’ (including Speaker Johnson) who have set their sights on seniors’ earned benefits in the name of debt reduction, we point out that Social Security and Medicare Part A are fully self-funded. They do not contribute a penny to the debt. In fact, the Social Security trust fund, which is invested in special treasury notes, actually lends the government money like any other bondholder. (Social Security cannot legally incur debt.) According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the main driver of the debt is ‘tax expenditures’ — giveaways to the wealthy and profitable corporations, such as the 2017 Trump/GOP tax cuts that swelled the debt by some $2 trillion.
Many politicians say they “support” Social Security, but their policy prescriptions are anything but supportive. Working Americans who contribute to Social Security and Medicare with every paycheck understand that. Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill take note: voting in favor of as fiscal commission is not “doing the people’s business.” It is a vote to undermine — not support — Social Security and Medicare.
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare and former staff director at the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging.