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Senator Sanders Asks Obama: Will You Defend Social Security?

"It is past time that the president told the American people in no uncertain terms that he will not cut Social Security on his watch."

Common Dreams staff

US Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) took to the Senate floor today and asked President Obama to end any speculation about his stance on Social Security and implored him to take a strong, public defense against the vociferous attacks on the program led by the Republican party and their presidential candidate, Mitt Romney

Sanders questioned why Obama has not defended Social Security against Republican calls for deep cuts in the program that benefits some 55 million retired and disabled Americans, widows and orphans. "I do not believe that we should cut Social Security," Sanders said in the speech. "I would like to know, and I think the American people would like to know, if President Obama feels the same way. It is past time that the president told the American people in no uncertain terms that he will not cut Social Security on his watch."

Last year Sanders introduced legislation, modeled on Obama's 2008 campaign proposal, to lift a cap on Social Security payroll taxes so people with earnings of $250,000 and more would pay the same share of that income as all workers.  The payroll tax is now assessed only on incomes up to $110,100 a year."It is past time that the president told the American people in no uncertain terms that he will not cut Social Security on his watch."

Sanders said that prior to 2008 Obama was a loud and vocal defender of the program. "I suspect that millions of Americans voted for President Obama because of the strong stands he took in defending Social Security," he said. 

During the past four years, President Obama has been largely silent on Social Security. Sanders expressed alarm that reports last year suggested that the White House was considering Social Security cuts as part of a "grand bargain" with Republican House Speaker John Boehner. 

"It should come as no surprise that Republicans in Washington and Gov.  Romney want to slash Social Security.  The truth is Republicans have never liked Social Security and they have been attacking Social Security since its inception," Sanders said.

And though he disagrees adamantly with the GOP plan for Social Security, he gave credit to the party for showing more clarity on their position than Obama.

Mitt Romney and the Republican leadership have pushed plans that would would begin the process of privatizing Social Security. Romney has proposed gradually increasing the retirement age to 68 or 69. Romney also favors slowing the growth of benefits for persons with "higher incomes." Under a plan floated by Romney's allies on Capitol Hill, someone making about $45,000 a year today who retires in 2050 would receive 32 percent less in annual Social Security benefits than under the current formula. By that definition, the top 60 percent of all wage earners would be considered "higher income."

Sanders noted that Social Security has not and does not contribute to the deficit or national debt, and says it has a $2.7 trillion surplus and will be able to pay 100 percent of promised benefits to every eligible recipient for the next 21 years.  Even with no changes, there will still be enough funding to pay more than 75 percent of promised benefits after that. 

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The following is an 'UNOFFICIAL' transcript of the speech generated by US Senate staff. An official transcript and video of the remarks will be posted as soon as they are made available:

Mr. President, I rise this morning in strong support of the middle-class tax cut relief act that would extend tax cuts for 98% of the American people while letting the Bush tax breaks for the wealthiest 2% expire at the end of this year.

Mr. President, I also want to express my strong opposition to the McConnell-Hatch bill that would provide tens of billions of dollars in tax breaks next year to millionaires and billionaires who today are doing phenomenally well. Really, this is not a complicated issue, Mr. President.

The United States now is seeing growing wealth and income inequality. The middle-class is disappearing. Poverty is increasing. The people on top are doing very, very well at the same time as the effective tax rate of the millionaires and billionaires are the lowest that they have been for many, many decades. This country has a $16 trillion national debt.

We have a $1 trillion deficit this year, and to give huge tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires I believe makes no sense to me and I believe makes no sense to the American people.

Mr. President, the Republican -- our Republican friends have made it very clear that when they say that they don't want to raise taxes on anyone, that's just code for saying they don't want to raise taxes on millionaires and billionaires. And I should add that if Governor Mitt Romney becomes President, he has proposed even more tax breaks for the very wealthiest people in this country while at the same time cutting Social Security, ending Medicare as we know it and slashing investments in education, transportation, childcare, nutrition and a variety of other programs that benefit working families and the middle class.

Mr. President, this morning I want to say a few words about Social Security, and let me be very clear that when we talk about Social Security, it's imperative that we understand that Social Security has not contributed one nickel to our deficit or our national debt, so when people say we have a national debt problem and that we have Social Security and they fuse the two together, that is simply incorrect.

As all Americans know, Social Security is independently funded through payroll tax contributions from workers and employers and up until last year, it has received no funding from the federal treasury.

Despite the rhetoric that we hear from Republicans and those on Wall Street, Social Security is not in financial crisis. Social Security has a $2.7 trillion surplus. Social Security according to the Social Security administration will be able to pay out 100% of promised benefits to every eligible recipient for the next 21 years. Although the American people now take Social Security for granted, we should never underestimate the incredibly positive impact that Social Security has had on our country.

Sometimes we do forget it, especially when those people coming up here, "let's cut Social Security, let's cut Social Security." Let's talk about what Social Security has accomplished.

Since its inception over 75 years ago, through good economic times and bad, through terrible recessions, Social Security has paid out every nickel owed to every eligible beneficiary with minimal administrative costs.

This is an extraordinary accomplishment. Nobody has ever received a letter from the Social Security Administration saying, "Sorry, we're in the middle of recession, we've had to cut your benefits in half." Every eligible beneficiary has received 100% of the benefits owed to him or her.

During this 75-year period, Social Security has succeeded in keeping millions of senior citizens, widows, orphans and persons with disability out of poverty.

Before Social Security existed, almost half of America's senior citizens lived in poverty. Today that number is too high but it is 10%, not 50%.

Mr. President, more than 55 million Americans now receive Social Security benefits. I would contrast that record with the situation we recently saw on Wall Street when millions of Americans lost significant or all of their retirement savings because of the collapse of Wall Street and the financial crisis that we went through.

But, Mr. President, despite this success, despite this incredibly strong record, my Republican friends and too many Democratic friends are calling for cuts in Social Security.

For example, we know where Mitt Romney stands on Social Security. Mr. Romney wants to begin the process of privatizing Social Security. I disagree with that because I think that would benefit primarily his friends on Wall Street. Because if you privatize Social Security, where are people going to get their retirement benefits? From Wall Street. And those guys on Wall Street will end up making huge amounts of money by charging the average American a significant commission for their services. Mr. Romney wants to gradually increase the retirement age to 68 or 69.

I don't agree with that.

At a time when 23 million Americans remain unemployed or underemployed and when the long-term unemployment for senior citizens is skyrocketing, you tell me, how many employers out there are going to say to a 68-year-old person on a 69-year-old person, we've got a great job for you? Especially if you're in the construction trades, or if you're a nurse or if you're somebody who stands on your feet eight or nine hours a day, a waiter or waitress. I don't think those jobs are going to be there if we raise Social Security retirement age.

I don't know what those folks are going to be doing for income.

Finally, Mr. President, the Romney campaign has put on his web site the following -- and I quote -- "Mitt believes that Social Security benefits should continue to grow but that the growth rate should be lower for those with higher incomes."

Well, what does that mean in English? While Mr. Romney has been somewhat vague about his intentions and has not spelled out the exact details of his proposal, some of my Republican friends in the Senate have provided what I believe is the road map that Mr. Romney is talking about.

Last year, Senators Lindsey Graham, Rand Paul and Mike Lee introduced a bill that would, among other things, reduce the future growth rate of Social Security benefits for the top 60% of earners by establishing what they call a "progressive price index."

Who are these so-called higher-income individuals that my Republican friends are talking about? Under this Republican bill, a worker making about $45,000 a year today retiring in 2050 would receive 32% less in annual Social Security benefits than under the current formula.

How much is a 32% cut for this middle-class wage earner? It's about $7,500 a year. And that, my friends, is a lot of money for a retiree.

Mr. President, it should come as no surprise that Republicans in Washington and Governor Romney want to slash Social Security. The truth is, Republicans have never liked Social Security and they have been attacking Social Security since its inception. That is not news.

The question, however, that millions of Americans are asking themselves today is where President Obama stands on Social Security. Unfortunately, he has been largely silent on this issue since he has been in the White House and during the current 2012 campaign.

He made a very strong statement recently in correctly attacking the Republican proposal, the so-called Ryan proposal, to move Medicare toward a voucher program. But unless I'm mistaken, I did not hear a word from him on the future of Social Security. And that is a shame.

That is a shame because candidate Barack Obama, when he was running for President in 2008, made it very clear to the American people that he would be a strong defender of Social Security.

So let me remind the American people exactly what Barack Obama said on the campaign trail in 2008.

On September 6, 2008, Barack Obama told the AARP the following -- and I quote -- "John McCain's campaign has suggested that the best answer for the growing pressures on Social Security might be to cut cost-of-living adjustments or raise the retirement age. Let me be clear -- I will not do either." -- Candidate, Senator Barack Obama.

On April 16, 2008, Senator Barack Obama said -- and I quote -- "the alternatives, like raising the retirement age, or cutting benefits or raising the payroll tax on everybody, including people making less than $97,000 a year, which today would be $110,000 a year, those are not good policy options."

On November 11, 2007, candidate Barack Obama said, "i believe that cutting Social Security benefits is not the right answer and that raising the retirement age is not the best option."

And in order to address the long-term financial challenges of Social Security, candidate Barack Obama came up with an idea that I believe hit the nail on the head. It was exactly the right approach. And I have applauded him for coming up with that idea.

What he said is he would apply the Social Security payroll tax on income above $250,000 a year to make sure that a millionaire and a billionaire pays the same percentage of their income into Social Security as someone who today makes $110,000 a year.

Bottom line is you lift the cap on taxable income, billionaires and millionaires above $250,000 a year start contributing into the Social Security trust fund.

Doing this -- and recent reports have confirmed this -- would ensure that Social Security would remain solvent for the next 75 years.

Mr. President, in 2008, candidate Barack Obama was exactly right, that is the solution to the long-term financial needs of Social Security. And that is why I introduced candidate Obama's concept into legislation. It was the right approach.

I introduced it into legislation and it now has ten co-sponsors. Here's how the "Economic Times" reported on the subject back on June 14, 2008. Quote, "Barack Obama would apply the Social Security payroll tax to all annual incomes above $250,000 which would affect the wealthiest 3% of Americans."

"The Presidential candidate told senior citizens in Ohio that it is unfair for middle-class earners to pay the Social Security tax on every dime they make while millionaires and billionaires pay it on only a very small percentage of their income."

That is what Barack Obama said when he was running for President in 2008.

I agreed with him. He was very clear. I suspect that millions of Americans voted for Barack Obama because of the strong stand he made in defending Social Security.

Unfortunately, since he has been in office, he has been much less clear about his position on Social Security and there were reports last year that he was considering cutting Social Security as part of a grand bargain with the Speaker of the House, John Boehner.

So, Mr. President, what I simply want to know, and I think what the American people want to know, is where does the President stand on Social Security.

Is he going to keep faith with the American people? Does he continue to believe what he believed when he ran for President?

Is he going to say to the millions and millions of seniors out there who are struggling every single day to keep their heads above water that we are not going to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly and the children and the sick and the poor.

That we're not going to continue to give tax breaks to millionaires and billionaires who are doing phenomenally well and cut Social Security as part of some grand bargain when, in fact, Social Security has not contributed a nickel to the deficit situation.

Now, Mr. President, as you well know, in terms of Social Security, there's a lot of discussion here in the Senate about moving toward a chained C.P.I. A chained C.P.I.

Now, nobody outside of this room understands what a chained C.P.I. is, but I'll tell you what it is. What it is are significant cuts in Social Security COLAs, and it rests on the theory -- if you can believe it -- that COLAs for seniors on Social Security are too generous.

And when I tell this to people in Vermont, seniors of Vermont, I say, please, don't laugh. But they always laugh.

They say, Bernie, in the last two out of three years, while our health care costs have been going up, our prescription drug costs have been going up, last two out of three years, we haven't gotten a COLA at all. How could they possibly believe that the COLAs -- that the formulation for coming up with these COLAs are too generous? But that is what the billionaires and the millionaires want. That's what our Republican friends want and what is what -- and that is what some democrats want.

They want to come up with a formulation which will cut Social Security benefits so that if you are 65 today, when you become 75, you will receive $500 a year less. And when you are 85 and you're trying to get by on $15,000, $16,000 a year, they're going to cut a thousand dollars from your Social Security benefits.

Well, I think when this country has the most unequal distribution of income and wealth, when the top 1% owns 40% of the wealth of this country, when in the last study that I saw, 93% of all new income in 2010 went to the top 1%, Mr. President, I don't think you balance the budget by cutting Social Security for people who are trying to survive on $14,000 or $15,000 a year.

That is not the formulation. That's not the way we should go.

So, Mr. President, I want to conclude my remarks by simply saying that I'm going to do everything I can to defend Social Security.

I am going to do everything that I can to see that given the fact that our deficit is largely caused by unpaid wars and tax breaks for the rich and the recession, which was created by Wall Street greed.

I'm going to fight any effort to cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

But today, I think the American people want to know -- we know where the Republicans stand on Social Security. We know where Governor Romney stands on Social Security.

Now is the time for the President of the United States to tell us where he stands on Social Security.

Is he going to keep faith with the promises that he made in 2008?

Is he going to stand with the senior citizens of this country and say, no, we're not going to balance the budget by cutting Social Security?

So I look forward to hearing what the President has to say. This is an issue which is enormously important to the seniors, the veterans in the state of Vermont and I'm going to continue dealing with it.

Thank you very much. And with that, Mr. President, I would note the absence of a quorum.

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