As Los Angeles Times columnist Michael Hiltzik immediately remarked: "Well, that didn't take long."
An attack by the Republican Party on the nation's Social Security program took less than one full working day. Included in a new set of rules passed by the House of Representatives on Tuesday was a new measure making it more difficult to move funds between separate accounts maintained by the Social Security Administration. A seemingly technical provision on the surface, critics says it puts millions of disabled and elderly Americans at risk and sets the stage for further attacks aimed at the wider program.
"The GOP is inventing a Social Security crisis that will threaten benefits for millions and put our most vulnerable at risk." —Sen. Elizabeth WarrenAccording to Hiltzik:
The rule hampers an otherwise routine reallocation of Social Security payroll tax income from the old-age program to the disability program. Such a reallocation, in either direction, has taken place 11 times since 1968, according to Kathy Ruffing of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
But it's especially urgent now, because the disability program's trust fund is expected to run dry as early as next year. At that point, disability benefits for 11 million beneficiaries would have to be cut 20%. Reallocating the income, however, would keep both the old-age and disability programs solvent until at least 2033, giving Congress plenty of time to assess the programs' needs and work out a long-term fix.
The procedural rule enacted by the House Republican caucus prohibits the reallocation unless it's accompanied by "benefit cuts or tax increases that improve the solvency of the combined trust funds," as paraphrased by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.In practical terms, the advocacy committee says, that makes the reallocation impossible; it mandates either benefit cuts across the board, which aren't politically palatable, or a payroll tax increase, which isn't palatable to the GOP.
In response to approval of the new rule, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) chastised Republicans in the House.
"The GOP is inventing a Social Security crisis that will threaten benefits for millions and put our most vulnerable at risk," Warren fumed via her Twitter account. "This is ridiculous. 233k people in MA receive Social Security disability benefits that could be threatened by these political games."
"All of these divide-and-conquer strategies are intended to turn Americans against each other so that all of their benefits can be cut." —Nancy Altman & Eric Kingson, Social Security Works
Advocacy groups like AARP and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare expressed outrage.
"It is difficult to believe that there is any purpose to this unprecedented change to House rules other than to cut benefits for Americans who have worked hard all their lives, paid into Social Security, and rely on their Social Security benefits, including disability, in order to survive," said Max Richtman, president of the NCPSSM, who also sent a letter to Congress expressing his concerns.
According to Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson, authors of the book Social Security Works! and members of the advocacy group of the same name, what would otherwise have been the "dry, mundane exercise" of adopting new rules in the House was "turned into a stealth attack on America’s working families."
Like previous "stealth attacks" on Social Security, write Altman and Kingson, the small rule change shows "the groundwork is being laid in advance" for a larger attack on the program as a whole and described the tactics of Republicans determined to destroy the program, regardless of the costs, as "hostage-taking." In their analysis, the GOP ploy involves playing disparate groups within the system off one another with the ultimate goal of drastically reducing the program for everyone—current and future beneficiaries alike. They write:
One of the strengths of Social Security is its universality. It is based on the principle that we are stronger together. It is an old tactic of the program’s opponents to seek to divide and conquer. They seek to turn young against old by falsely claiming that too much is being spent on the old. They seek to turn African Americans against whites with the preposterous claim that Social Security is unfair to blacks. (We document and refute these and many other claims in our new book). This time they seek to drive a wedge between retired workers and disabled workers by claiming that reallocation helps the disabled at the expense of the old – another preposterous claim. All of these divide-and-conquer strategies are intended to turn Americans against each other so that all of their benefits can be cut.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) also condemned the rule, calling it not only contentious, but dangerous. "Re-allocation has never been controversial, but detractors working to privatize Social Security will do anything to manufacture a crisis out of a routine administrative function," Brown said in a statement. "Re-allocation is a routine housekeeping matter that has been used 11 times, including four times under Ronald Reagan. Modest re-allocation of payroll taxes would ensure solvency of both trust funds until 2033. But if House Republicans block reallocation, insurance for disabled Americans, veterans, and children could face severe cuts once the trust fund is exhausted in 2016."
For their part, Altman and Kingson said groups like Social Security Works and their allies will take this signal from the Republican Party and use it to re-energize their campaign to strengthen, not destroy, what they consider the single most successful social program in the nation's history.
"If senior, disability, workers, women’s, veterans, civil rights, faith-based and other groups stand together – as they have in opposition to privatization and recent benefit cut proposals," they concluded, "this stealth effort to pull apart our Social Security will be defeated. And if citizens from around the country let their representatives know that it’s time to expand Social Security to address the nation’s retirement income crisis, not cut it, all of us will be better off."