After his re-election in 2004, President George W. Bush declared he would spend his political capital to realize a long-held conservative goal: end Social Security as we know it and turn it over to Wall Street. Bush didn’t realize he had stepped on a political landmine. I was Executive Vice President of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in 2005, when we beat back Bush’s attempt to privatize one of America’s most popular and successful government programs.
We and other advocacy groups banded together to oppose the plan. We lobbied on Capitol Hill. We held town halls and rallies across the country. We mobilized at the grass roots level. We mounted a paid media campaign. By the summer of 2005, Bush’s scheme was dead. Not a single piece of privatization legislation made it to the floor in Congress. The people had spoken: Hands Off our Social Security!
Here we are, eleven years later, facing another existential threat to our health and retirement income security. But this time the threat is worse, the peril more palpable. The millions of workers, retirees, the disabled and their families who depend on Social Security and Medicare have cause for grave concern. Why do I say that? After all, we prevailed in saving Social Security in 2005, with Republicans in control of the White House and Congress – just like today. But there are several key differences between then and now:
*In 2005, there were more GOP moderates in the House and Senate. There was no Tea Party or Freedom Caucus. We’ve seen in the past 6 years how these extremists are the tail that wags the dog in the House. They are determined to privatize or cut Social Security and Medicare, and they have considerable clout with the House GOP leadership.
*The 2005 privatization proposal came from the White House; Congressional Republicans were lukewarm to the idea of monkeying with Social Security. Today, House Republicans are leading the charge to privatize both programs. While Speaker Paul Ryan nearly salivates at the opportunity to convert Medicare into “Coupon-Care”, the House Social Security Subcommittee Chairman, Sam Johnson (R-TX), has already introduced a bill that would raise the Social Security retirement age, slash benefits, and cut Cost of Living Adjustments (COLAs). No doubt, similar GOP bills will quickly follow in the new Congress this January.
*On the Senate side, the two most powerful Republicans on this issue have openly advocated “Social Security reform” – which is usually code for replacing guaranteed benefits with personal investment accounts. Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell has perpetuated the myth that Social Security and Medicare have “driven the [national] debt,” going so far as to call these cherished entitlement programs “the single biggest threats to our future.” Meanwhile, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch peddles the falsehood that Social Security “will be bankrupt unless we enact significant reform.”
*President-elect Trump, who promised not to touch Social Security and Medicare during the campaign, advocates reform on his transition website and nominated a fervent privatizer, Rep. Tom Price, as Secretary of Health and Human Services. His second in command, Governor Mike Pence, is a well-documented privatization proponent. We can’t count on Mr. Trump to protect current and future Social Security beneficiaries.
The movement in Washington to gut our most crucial social insurance programs – not only Social Security and Medicare, but Medicaid, too – amounts to nothing less than a war on the working class: people at all levels of income and employment who are counting on retirement income and health security. We in the advocacy community, empowered by workers and beneficiaries across the country, are gearing up for battle.
We are gathering millions of petition signatures demanding that Congress keep its hands off of Social Security and Medicare. We are organizing phone banks and letter writing campaigns to our elected representatives. Borrowing a campaign idea from Mr. Trump, we also need to build a wall – a firewall to be specific – in the Senate, to ensure that none of the privatization or benefit-cutting legislation makes it out of Capitol Hill and up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Senate Democrats and Independents must stand together. Incoming Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and Senator Bernie Sanders will make that happen with the reinforcement of seniors’ advocates. However, several in the GOP must also stand with Democrats to put a simple majority vote out of reach. Senators including John McCain (AZ), Susan Collins (ME), Lamar Alexander (TN), and Charles Grassley (IA) know how important Social Security and Medicare benefits are to their constituents – and value the billions of dollars pumped into their state economies. We call upon these Senators to stand up for the future retirement security of America’s workers.
There is no question the struggle will be harder than it was in 2005. The political climate is more hostile. The forces aiming to destroy our treasured social insurance programs are more insidious. The stakes are higher. But we can protect Social Security and Medicare and keep them solvent for the future without cutting benefits for millions of Americans if we organize, mobilize, and make our voices heard on Capitol Hill.
Together, we can stop this war on the working class.