There was much for seniors to cheer in the outcome of the midterm elections. Voters rejected many candidates who supported harmful proposals to “reform” Social Security and Medicare, including high-profile Republican challengers Blake Masters in Arizona and Don Bolduc in New Hampshire (whose defeats helped Democrats preserve their Senate majority.). In fact, more than 70 of the House and Senate candidates we endorsed as “seniors’ champions” emerged victorious. It is not a stretch to say that, along with sending strong messages about the importance of democracy and reproductive rights, millions of voters said loudly and clearly: Hands off our Social Security and Medicare! That’s the good news.
Unfortunately, a party that has never fully supported Social Security and Medicare from the very beginning won the bare minimum of seats needed to take control of the House in January. During the campaign, Republicans were not shy about revealing their plans for seniors’ earned benefits: to raise the eligibility ages, privatize both programs, and hold them hostage to debt ceiling negotiations.
We must take Republicans at their word that these are the policies they will pursue, albeit with a slim House majority. Come January, Republicans will chair the powerful House Ways and Means and Budget committees, which have tremendous influence over Social Security and Medicare policy. The GOP can use these committees as pulpits to promote proposals that could undermine older Americans’ financial and health security. Indeed, the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee will be chaired by a fiscal conservative instead of Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), who introduced legislation to expand benefits and has been a fierce advocate for seniors in the U.S. Congress.
Fortunately, a majority Democratic Senate and President Biden have the power to block major legislation to cut or undermine Social Security and Medicare. But they may be under tremendous pressure from the GOP to make concessions during debt ceiling and budget negotiations. Once again, seniors and their advocates will need to mobilize to protect Social Security and Medicare — two enormously successful programs that have insured millions of workers and their families against the challenges of disability and retirement for 87 years and 57 years, respectively.
The coming battles may be like déjà vu for those who remember the Obama years, when, in 2011, a new Republican House majority tried to force Democrats to accept huge spending cuts, including to seniors’ earned benefits, using the debt ceiling as a cudgel. Democratic members rejected benefit cuts as part of a debt limit deal, while Republicans refused to consider revenue increases.
The lack of a bipartisan agreement resulted in automatic caps on spending for day-to-day operation of the federal government, or “discretionary spending.” While the spending caps didn’t affect Social Security directly, they resulted in the Social Security Administration (SSA) operating budget being gutted for more than a decade. Seniors and workers with disabilities paid the price. A woefully underfunded SSA has struggled ever since to provide adequate customer service to the public.
The 2012 presidential election campaign between President Obama and Mitt Romney raised the profile of another dangerous idea – Medicare privatization. Converting Medicare into a voucher program was a favorite proposal of Romney’s running mate, future Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan.
We launched an aggressive grassroots ‘Truth Tour’ to warn the public that Ryan’s “Coupon Care” plan would hurt seniors by raising their Medicare costs and would have made it harder for beneficiaries to choose their own doctors. It worked. Voters’ support for the Romney/Ryan ticket diminished. As we noted at the time, “The more the American people learn about these privatization schemes, the less they like them.”
The Romney/Ryan ticket lost to President Obama, Ryan’s voucher plan stalled (though he would attempt unsuccessfully to revive it four years later), and seniors and their advocates repelled yet another attempt to weaken older Americans’ benefits. But that respite was short lived.
In 2013, another attempt to strike a “grand bargain” on spending included a proposal to adopt a more miserly formula — the “Chained Consumer Price Index” — for calculating Social Security Cost of Living Increases (COLAs). Using the Chained CPI to determine COLAs would have cost elderly seniors $1,400 in yearly benefit reductions.
The Chained CPI proposal alarmed seniors’ advocates. We and other groups sprang into action to oppose it, mobilizing our members and supporters through petition drives, email campaigns, and rallies — including a protest in front of the White House. This robust grassroots activity helped put the Chained CPI back where it belonged — in the trash heap of bad ideas. Unfortunately, it is back in this year’s House Republican Study Committee budget blueprint.
Democrats must maintain a united front to oppose Republican schemes that endanger Social Security and Medicare — without wavering or capitulating. President Biden must use his veto power against harmful proposals to these programs as necessary. He admirably vowed to do that immediately after the election, declaring: “If Republicans try to cut Social Security and Medicare, I will not let that happen!”
But our elected leaders cannot defend workers’ earned benefits in isolation. The White House and Congress must continue to hear from the American people that they want Social Security and Medicare to be protected: no cuts, no privatization, no raising the eligibility ages, no Chained CPI, and no debt ceiling extortion. There are multiple ways to reach out to members of Congress — to remind our elected leaders that after a deadly pandemic that took a huge toll on seniors, the soaring cost of retirement, and ongoing wealth inequality, Americans depend on Social Security and Medicare to retire with dignity now more than ever.
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in Washington, D.C.