Absent Progressive Uproar, Social Security and Medicare Face Axe
The lines are being drawn for a 'Grand Bargain' and the Democrats' continued willingness to give away role as defenders of safety net and earned benefit programs, say critics, is deeply worrying
If U.S. citizens are increasingly concerned that the Democratic Party is no longer willing to fight off the right-wing attack on Social Security, Medicare, and other key social programs, Sen. Dick Durbin, President Obama and other party leaders have recently offered plenty of evidence to increase that worry.
Since the end of the government shutdown and standoff over the debt limit ended last week, Obama has repeatedly said that he wants to find a "balanced" solution to the ongoing budget debate with Republican lawmakers.
Unless a broad-based populist movement against such a deal manifests—and soon—the American public should expect some scenario in which programs like Medicare and Social Security receive long-term cuts in exchange for a short-term budget deal with Republicans.
In his first public remarks following the reopening of the government, Obama said his goal would be a "balanced approach to a responsible budget" and later declared: "The challenges we have right now are not short-term deficits; it’s the long-term obligations that we have around things like Medicare and Social Security."
On Sunday, Durbin repeated another familiar GOP talking point by telling Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace: "Social Security is gonna run out of money in 20 years. The Baby Boom generation is gonna blow away our future. We don't wanna see that happen."
But as the Huffington Post's Zach Carter, reporting on Durbin's Fox appearance, immediately pointed out:
Social Security will not run out of money in 20 years. The program currently enjoys a surplus of more than $2 trillion. Social Security will, however, be unable to pay all benefits at current levels if nothing is changed. If a 25 percent benefit cut were implemented in 20 years, the program would be solvent into the 2080s.
Responding to Durbin's Fox News performance, FireDogLake's DSWright fired off a post which included:
If this is what Democrats do after they win a budget standoff I would hate to see what they do after they lose one.
A truly progressive Democratic Party would be calling for – at least in their first offer on a conservative television network – expanding Social Security not cutting it. Which could easily be done by removing the cap on Social Security taxes so those making over $113,000 a year simply continue paying Social Security taxes on all their income like the rest of us. This would not only ensure solvency for Social Security well into the future but could easily provide additional benefits to current retirees. More revenues and benefits!
Even if you think removing the cap is too progressive, wouldn’t you at least start there?
And 20 years? We have record poverty, unemployment, and stagnant wages today. It’s time for the Democratic Party to prioritize and not open the negotiations by buying the Republican’s framing of the argument and offering cuts to historic promises. Especially without even offering a progressive alternative. Otherwise what was the point of winning the budget showdown – to reopen a conservative government?
And Richard Eskow, a fellow at the Campaign for America's Future, went further, blasting Durbin for what he termed "inflammatory" rhetoric that isn't "just false" but comes "dangerously close to demagoguery."
According to The Nation's John Nichols, the budget battle is now heightened in the wake of the latest shutdown fiasco, and it remains unclear how members from the Senate and House will craft a deal that doesn't end inb a repeated stalement. As Nichols reports:
The deal that ended the shutdown set up a high-stakes conference committee on budget issues. If there is to be a “grand bargain,” this is where it will be generated. And Ryan—the most prominent of the fourteen Democrats, fourteen Republicans and two independents on the committee—is in the thick of it.
The Budget Committee chairman says it would be “premature to get into exactly how we’re going to” sort out budget issues.
But no one should have any doubts about the hard bargain he will drive for. In the midst of the shutdown, Ryan jumped the gun by penning a Wall Street Journal op-ed that proposed: “Reforms to entitlement programs and the tax code…”
“Here are just a few ideas to get the conversation started,” Ryan wrote. “We could ask the better off to pay higher premiums for Medicare. We could reform Medigap plans to encourage efficiency and cut costs. And we could ask federal employees to contribute more to their own retirement.”
Translation: Get ready for the radical reshaping of Medicare so that it is no longer a universal program. Make way for more price-gouging by the private companies that sell supplemental insurance. Launch a new assault on public employees who have already been hit with wage freezes and furloughs.
However—and despite those (Eskow among them) who congratulated the president for "not negotiating" when the recent threat of a federal default loomed—it seems that the long-game for GOP "hostage-takers" is to see how often they can impose a crisis before the Democrats finally are allowed to bend (as they've repeatedly suggested they will) on dismembering their most successful and once-coveted policy achievements: Social Security and Medicare.
As Eskow, citing ample evidence, writes:
Not only do [Democrat leaders] apparently want to cut “entitlements” – some such cuts are included in the President’s current budget – but they’ve essentially conceded as much, leaving them very little negotiating leverage.
For their part, Republicans say they’re willing to give up the harmful cuts known as sequestration – and only those cuts – in return for Social Security and Medicare benefit reductions. Their defense-contractor patrons would be amply rewarded in return for sacrifices from America’s seniors and disabled.
Within the established circle of Beltway punditry and cable news shows, the idea of a negotiated settlement in which Democrats offer up cuts to earned benefit programs like Social Security in exchange for some sort of vague "revenue increase" is now heralded as the "obvious" and "mature" course for Congress and the Obama White House.
However, as Eskow argues, "entitlement cuts are not an 'adult' position" but rather "the conservative position" of long-standing.
Further, pushing back against Democrats who have embraced the idea of a so-called 'Grand Bargain' with their Republican counterparts, Eskow says that unless a broad-based populist movement against such a deal manifests—and soon—the American public should expect some scenario in which programs like Medicare and Social Security receive long-term cuts in exchange for a short-term budget deal with Republicans.
More and more, Eskow writes, "we find ourselves in a Bizarro-World situation where too many Democrats speak like Republicans, most Republican Party leaders speak like right-wing extremists, and the Republican Party 'insurgents' sound more and more like the leaders of paramilitary militias."
This lurch to the right is not only bad economics, he argues, but clearly bad politics, too. He writes:
Any scenario which leads to Social Security or Medicare cuts would be bad for seniors. It would also be bad for any politician who supported it.
A recent poll by Lake Research shows that 82% of all Americans oppose cuts to Social Security, including 83% of Democrats, 78% of independents, 82% of Republicans – and, in one of the most startling findings of all, fully three-fourths of all self-described Tea Party members (74%). (Social Security Works has a video and a petition on this subject.)
Democrats hold the advantage on this issue right now, which means it’s theirs to lose.
But for those Americans forced to watch the increasingly 'Bizarro-World' of Washington politics surrounding the budget battle, what is the scenario in which the idea of Social Security or Medicare cuts are vanquished? Eskow predicts the odds are slim, but argues the only scenario to be hopeful for is one in which "progressives, both officeholders and activists, lead a popular movement which reflects public opinion and defends these programs from so-called 'Grand Bargain' cuts." And concludes:
It won’t be an easy victory. But it’s the only ending to this story in which everybody lives happily ever after: Seniors and disabled people aren’t forced unnecessarily into penury or financial insecurity. Good Democrats get elected, or reelected, to office. A serious conversation is begun about how to mitigate the effects of runaway profit-seeking on American healthcare.
That scenario won’t come by itself. People will have to work for it. But it would be more than worth the effort.