* a copy of this letter was also sent to the House of Representatives
January 23, 2023
United States Senate
Washington, D.C. 20510
On behalf of the millions of members and supporters of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, I am writing to urge you to support legislation that would raise or suspend the limit on our nation’s debt without attaching provisions that would hurt programs important to our nation’s seniors. It is essential that Congress take up and pass ‘clean’ debt limit legislation, not only to protect our nation’s economy, but also to prevent the risk of significant economic harm specifically to over 65 million Americans who receive benefits through the Social Security program and the 63 million beneficiaries who receive health care through Medicare.
Social Security beneficiaries have earned their benefits through a lifetime of hard work and they rely on their benefit being paid on time and in full each and every month. These payments are at risk of not being paid on schedule for the first time in our nation’s history. While we have never witnessed first-hand how a default would affect the payment of Social Security and Medicare benefits because the federal government has never defaulted on its debt obligations, most congressional budget experts believe that a disruption of benefit payment is virtually inevitable.
When Social Security’s Trust Funds were in surplus, Treasury had no need to borrow money to pay benefits so Social Security beneficiaries were largely insulated from the direct implications of a default. This year is different. Social Security is no longer in surplus. It is drawing down on the surpluses that have been intentionally built up over the past four decades to cover the anticipated retirement of the baby boom generation.
When Treasury can no longer borrow money because it has reached its authorized borrowing limit, it can no longer pay all of the nation’s bills on time and in full. Because the bonds in the Social Security Trust Funds “count” toward that borrowing limit, Social Security benefits are placed at risk. There are conflicting views among experts regarding whether the federal government has the legal authority or even the technical capacity to prioritize some bills over others, or which criteria Treasury might use to make those choices. What we do know is that in each and every month after Treasury exhausts the ‘extraordinary measures’ they are utilizing to manage our debt in the absence of a new borrowing limit, currently expected to be begin by June, Treasury will be required to pay over $90 billion in benefits to 65 million Social Security beneficiaries (including retirees, disabled workers, widows and widowers, children and spouses), and that these benefits are at serious risk of not being paid on time or in full for the first time in the program’s history.
One option under review, of delaying some payments until Treasury has accumulated sufficient funds to make those payments, would also cause a real crisis for many beneficiaries. Almost two-thirds of beneficiaries rely on their Social Security benefits for over 50 percent of their income, and 40 percent rely on Social Security for 90 percent or more of their income. Delaying checks for these beneficiaries, potentially for weeks or months, will force them to decide whether they will pay the rent, buy food or postpone filling their prescriptions. The longer the checks are delayed, the worse the problem will become.
In addition, a 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.
Some in the new majority in the House have made it abundantly clear that they plan to hold the debt limit hostage in exchange for massive cuts in spending, despite the fact that the debt limit merely allows the federal government to finance spending that Congress and the President have previously approved under multiple administrations. This includes around $3 trillion in tax cuts enacted under the Trump Administration. Although they have not made specific proposals public, it is abundantly clear that their goal is to force Congress and the President to acquiesce to painful cuts to popular programs that the American public would never support if they were proposed and debated in the light of day.
The various options apparently under consideration include budget process changes that would place arbitrary limits on spending irrespective of the country’s needs. These include the Balanced Budget Amendment, the so-called Responsible Budgeting Act, the TRUST Act, the Fair Tax Act and various ‘sunsetting’ and other procedural tricks. What do all of these plans have in common? Instead of openly proposing Social Security and Medicare cuts so that Congress can debate them in the sunlight, they cut benefits through procedural gimmicks designed to obscure who is responsible for them. Once they are put in place, the American people will be the ones suffering the consequences of changes to programs they never anticipated or approved.
This situation is unconscionable. Congress must put politics aside and raise the debt limit before incalculable damage is done to our nation’s economy and before 65 million Americans are forced to wonder whether they will receive the benefits they earned on time.
On behalf of your senior constituents and their families who may not be able to speak out for themselves, we strongly urge all members of Congress to raise or suspend the debt limit without delay.
President and CEO