This week, Rep. John Larson (D-CT), chair of the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, held two historic hearings on expanding Social Security benefits. These were the first hearings on Social Security expansion in nearly half a century.
These hearings represent a return to transparency and regular order, an important development for anyone who cares about the future of the American people’s pension, Social Security.
In addition to holding hearings, Representative Larson recently introduced the Social Security 2100 Act along with over 200 of his fellow Democrats. This wise legislation expands Social Security’s modest benefits while ensuring that all promised benefits will be paid in full and on time through the year 2100 and beyond.
Under Larson’s leadership, Democrats are holding public hearings and, presumably, plan to record their votes on the issue in the Ways and Means Committee and the House floor. This presents a sharp contrast to the infamous Bowles Simpson Commission, the so-called Super Committee and other closed door, fast track efforts that attempted to cut Social Security’s modest benefits in secret so that the American people would have no way to hold their elected leaders accountable.
It also is a stark contrast to the House Republicans when they were in the majority. For years, Larson, as ranking Democratic member of the Social Security subcommittee, requested the kind of hearings that he held this week. But as long as Republicans held the House majority, they refused.
Now that Larson has the gavel, his Republican colleagues emphasize the so-called need for “bipartisanship” on Social Security. What they really seem to be saying, from their performance at the recent hearings, is that they want Democrats to give them political cover to cut benefits so that they are free from accountability at the ballot box.
True bipartisanship means enacting what both Republican and Democratic voters want. Here, there is overwhelming unanimity. 87% of Democrats, 73% of Independents and 51% of Republicans agree: Expand, don’t cut, benefits – while requiring the wealthiest among us to pay their fair share.
But of course, that’s not what the donor class wants. They want to pay less, not more, as the recent tax giveaway to wealthy billionaires and the largest, most profitable corporations makes clear. Republicans have signaled loudly that they want to use those massive tax cuts as an excuse to cut so-called “entitlements” – their word for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Leader Mitch McConnell has admitted to as much. (It is important to point out that Social Security does not add a penny to the deficit.)
Republicans appear to want to add benefit cuts to Larson’s proposal, under the guise of “compromise.” It is imperative to recognize that Larson’s bill is already a relatively moderate plan, which should have plenty for Republicans to like: It increases the Social Security contributions that everyone would pay, in contrast to other proposals financed exclusively by requiring the wealthy to pay their fair share. Moreover, it includes a tax cut for about 12 million Americans.
Yet the donor class and the Republicans who appear to represent their views continue to demand benefit cuts. “Appear” is the operative word because so far they do not seem to have the courage of their convictions.
In the hearings, not one single Republican offered a proposal to restore Social Security to long-term actuarial balance. Instead, they repeatedly referred to a proposal by former Representative Sam Johnson (R-TX).
It is instructive to note that Johnson introduced his legislation in the lame duck two Congresses ago with no cosponsors, and did not introduce it again. Conveniently for Republicans, he is now retired. No Republican who spoke of the bill in the hearings has introduced the Johnson legislation as his own.
That failure by Johnson to gain any cosponsors or reintroduce the bill prior to his retirement is not surprising. Nor is the failure of any current members to introduce it as their own.
Close analysis shows why. The Johnson bill would cut benefits for current beneficiaries, and make even bigger cuts for those not yet retired. Indeed, in the guise of restoring Social Security to long-range actuarial balance, the Johnson bill would cut benefits by substantially more than if Congress took no action whatsoever in the future to bring in additional revenue.
Worse, it would radically transform Social Security, gradually but inexorably changing it from an insurance program that replaces wages in the event of disability, death or old age to a subsistence-level benefit largely unrelated to prior earnings.
Johnson’s bill was titled, “The Social Security Reform Act.” But it could just as accurately have been labeled “The Social Security Repeal and Replace Act.” The proposed replacement is not a new idea.
In 1936, the Republican platform proposed repealing Social Security and replacing it with subsistence-level benefits. They proclaimed that “The New Deal policies, while purporting to provide social security, have, in fact, endangered it.” Like Johnson’s proposal, and indeed much of today’s Republican rhetoric about reforming Social Security for those who “need” it, the 1936 Republicans advocated, “Every American citizen over sixty-five should receive the supplementary payment necessary to provide a minimum income sufficient to protect him or her from want.”
But Social Security is not a welfare program, intended only for those who “need” it. It is an earned benefit. Americans have always understood that distinction. Not surprisingly, Alf Landon, the Republican Presidential candidate who championed the 1936 effort at repealing and replacing Social Security, lost in a landslide.
A decade and a half later, the Republicans dusted off the same proposal. Representative Carl Curtis (R-NE) and the Chamber of Commerce tried to convince President Eisenhower to champion the radical change. He rejected it and instead successfully proposed expanding Social Security.
In 2005, President George W. Bush dusted it off yet again. He proposed what was labeled “progressive price indexing,” as part of his effort to privatize Social Security. Like the earlier proposals, so-called progressive price indexing would transform Social Security into a subsistence-level benefit, largely unrelated to prior earnings. And like clockwork, around a decade and a half later, here they go again. The Johnson bill transforms Social Security through different methods (i.e.., modifying bend points and percentage factors in the benefit formula, among other changes). But it produces the same result.
Because Republicans now realize how toxic their agenda is, they refuse to be transparent about it and are instead hiding behind demands for “bipartisanship.” To my knowledge, no Republican has introduced legislation addressing Social Security’s actuarial shortfall in this Congress. In contrast, Democrats have introduced a number of bills to do just that.
What is needed is not bipartisanship. Indeed, when the House of Representatives voted on the Social Security Act of 1935, the ranking Republican on the Ways and Means Committee tried to kill the program before it was born by offering a motion to recommit with instructions. The motion would have recommitted the bill to Ways and Means with instructions to strip the old age insurance program – what we today call Social Security – and unemployment insurance from the legislation.
The motion failed by a vote of 253 to 149. Every Republican but one opposed the creation of Social Security by voting to recommit. Presumably, the one Republican voted with the majority to preserve the ability to offer a motion to reconsider. (On the vote on final passage, the legislation passed by a vote of 371 to 33, but the reason so many Republicans voted in favor had nothing to do with bipartisanship or an eleventh-hour change of heart, and everything to do with the fact that the Ways and Means Committee was, at that time, also the Committee on Committees and, as such, controlled which members, including Republican members, served on what committees.)
Principled positions and transparency are what is needed, not closed door bargaining that hides accountability. No one in office today ran on cutting Social Security, and certainly not on ending Social Security as we know it.
Those of us advocating to expand, not cut, Social Security while requiring the wealthiest among us to pay more, believe we have the American people on our side. Based on their refusal to be transparent about their plans for cuts, the Republicans in Congress agree.