Earlier this month, 30 House Democrats joined dozens of their Republican colleagues in signing a letter endorsing legislation that has been condemned as a plot to cut Social Security benefits behind closed doors.
Now those Democrats are feeling the heat from their constituents and advocacy groups that caught wind of the bipartisan letter (pdf), which warns the "federal debt is growing at an alarming pace" and urges congressional leaders to advance an agenda that brings "the debt burden to sustainable levels as the pandemic recedes."
"No member of the party of FDR should support cutting the American people's earned Social Security benefits."
—Linda Benesch, Social Security Works
As part of that agenda, the House lawmakers recommended passage of the TRUST Act, a bipartisan, bicameral measure introduced last October by Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah)—a longtime proponent of slashing Social Security benefits. If passed, the bill would establish "rescue committees" with mandates to craft "solutions"—which, in the view of progressive advocacy groups, is often code for cuts—for trust fund programs like Medicare and Social Security.
"No member of the party of FDR should support cutting the American people's earned Social Security benefits," Linda Benesch, communications director for Social Security Works, told Common Dreams.
Social Security Works, an organization that advocates expansion of the New Deal-era program, has reached out to every House Democrat who signed on to the June 1 letter demanding that they publicly go on the record in opposition to Social Security cuts.
"One piece of good news is that the 30 Democrats who signed this letter represent only 13% of all House Democrats," said Benesch. "Ten or even five years ago, it likely would have been many more. That said, that number is still far too high, and we won't stop fighting until it's zero."
Unless lawmakers clarify their intentions to defend Social Security from cuts, Benesch said her group is planning to put up billboards this election cycle in the districts of House Democrats and Republicans who signed the letter.
While Benesch stressed that the exact language may change, below is a mock-up of the first billboard the group is planning to run against Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy, the Democrat who represents the state's 7th congressional district.
Thus far, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.)—who is facing a progressive primary challenge—is the only Democratic signatory of the letter who has since issued public statements vowing to oppose Social Security cuts in response to pressure from constituents and advocacy groups, including the Washington-based organization Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action.
As The Intercept's Aída Chávez reported Wednesday, Kilmer "has been trying to walk back his support for the letter and the attack on Social Security in letters to constituents who had contacted him with concerns about the policy recommendation."
According to a copy of a letter obtained by The Intercept, Kilmer told constituents that he has been a "vocal opponent of efforts to undermine existing Social Security benefits" and is not a co-sponsor of the TRUST Act, which has been floated by Republican lawmakers during talks over the next coronavirus stimulus measure.
"There are 3 options. Rep. Kilmer didn't read the letter he signed, he doesn't know about the history of bipartisan efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare, or he's trying to have his cake and eat it, too: publicly praising Social Security while privately trying to cut it."
—Rebecca Parson, Washington congressional candidate
"It was really with an eye toward the solvency of these other trust funds that I signed onto this letter," Kilmer wrote, pointing to the Highway Trust Fund.
In a tweet last week, Kilmer said "Congress doesn't need new commissions, studies, or special rules."
"It needs to pass the Social Security 2100 Act to increase benefits and keep it solvent through the next century," Kilmer added, referring to Rep. John Larson's (D-Conn.) proposal to expand Social Security.
Benesch applauded Kilmer's comments as "very strong" and "exactly what we'd like from the other signers."
But Rebecca Parson, the 35-year-old progressive organizer now running against Kilmer in the Washington state Democratic primary, was not impressed by the congressman's remarks.
"There are 3 options," Parson told The Intercept. "Rep. Kilmer didn't read the letter he signed, he doesn't know about the history of bipartisan efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare, or he's trying to have his cake and eat it, too: publicly praising Social Security while privately trying to cut it. Whether he signed the letter due to negligence, ignorance, or doublespeak, it's clear he shouldn't be representing Washington's 6th District, where 20 percent of our residents are over 65."
"No reducing the money our people need to survive," Parson added. "No joining with conservatives to undermine the greatest anti-poverty program in our history. That's unacceptable to the grandmother in Tacoma I spoke with who's living on $750 a month and paying $650 in rent, and it's unacceptable to all seniors in the district."