U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) addresses a rally of striking British workers on August 31, 2022 in London.

(Photo: Guy Smallman/Getty Images)

Manchin-Romney Attack on Social Security Is 'Last Thing We Need': Sanders

The Vermont Independent called for expanding popular federal programs rather than allowing a bipartisan commission to propose devastating cuts.

Progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders on Saturday slammed right-wing Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin's widely panned proposal to explore slashing Social Security benefits as part of a debt ceiling pact with Republicans.

During a Wednesday interview with Fox Business at the ruling class' annual gathering in Davos for the World Economic Forum, Manchin (W.Va.) suggested that members of both major U.S. political parties "work together" on solving the nation's so-called "debt problem." Although Manchin didn't explicitly demand cuts to Social Security and expressed opposition to GOP calls for privatization, he singled out the program for intervention, saying that Congress "should be able to solidify it."

Given that Republicans are currently threatening to tank the global economy unless Democrats agree to reduce social spending, Manchin's unilateral call for appeasement has set off alarm bells.

What's especially concerning to progressives is that the corporate-backed lawmaker is the co-author, alongside Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), of the TRUST Act, a bill that would enable Congress to create bipartisan "rescue" committees for the nation's trust fund programs—including Social Security and Medicare—and give the panels 180 days to develop "legislation that restores solvency and otherwise improves each." Measures put forth by the bipartisan committees would be fast-tracked for floor votes in both chambers of Congress, with no amendments allowed.

Not only is Social Security legally incapable of adding to the federal deficit, but budget analysts have shown that the program is financially sound, requiring just a small increase in payroll tax revenue to ensure full benefits beyond 2035.

"The last thing we need is another commission to propose cuts to Social Security and Medicare," Sanders (I-Vt.) tweeted Saturday.

"The disastrous Bowles-Simpson 'fiscal commission' came very close to passing Congress some ten years ago. Bernie led the fight against it. It was a bad idea then, it is an even worse idea now."

"The last time we had one, it proposed cutting Social Security benefits for middle-class seniors by up to 35% and cutting tax rates for billionaires," Sanders added, referring to the notorious 2010 Bowles-Simpson Commission, on which Manchin and Romney's bill is based.

Former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson (Wyo.), the Obama-appointed chairs of that commission, both endorsed the TRUST Act in 2021, calling it "important and vital."

Historically informed critics, by contrast, have condemned Manchin and Romney's legislation as "a Trojan horse to cut seniors' benefits."

Sanders' staff director Warren Gunnels provided additional historical context on Saturday, linking to a 2012 essay in which the senator explained that in addition to seeking to cut wealthy households' tax rates and current retirees' Social Security benefits, the panel also proposed raising the retirement age to 69 years, slashing veterans' benefits, increasing interest rates on student loans, and eliminating 450,000 federal jobs, among other harmful measures.

On Wednesday, Manchin asserted that his and Romney's bill could be used to secure a debt ceiling deal with House Republicans, many of whom have vowed to not lift the country's borrowing cap—an arbitrary and arguably unconstitutional figure set by Congress—unless Democrats agree to shred vital social programs.

The U.S. government's outstanding debt officially hit the statutory limit of $31.4 trillion on Thursday, at which point the Treasury Department started repurposing federal funds.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told congressional leaders last week that "the use of extraordinary measures enables the government to meet its obligations for only a limited amount of time," possibly through early June. She implored Congress to "act in a timely manner to increase or suspend the debt limit," warning that "failure to meet the government's obligations would cause irreparable harm to the U.S. economy, the livelihoods of all Americans, and global financial stability."

Notably, Capitol Hill's deficit hawks do not support reducing the Pentagon's ever-expanding budget or hiking taxes on the rich to increase revenue. On the contrary, the first bill unveiled by House Republicans in the 118th Congress seeks to rescind most of the Inflation Reduction Act's roughly $80 billion funding boost for the Internal Revenue Service—a move that would help wealthy households evade taxes and add an estimated $114 billion to the federal deficit.

A 2011 debt ceiling standoff enabled the GOP to impose austerity and also resulted in a historic downgrading of the U.S. government's credit rating, but the country has never defaulted on its debt. Economists warn that doing so would likely trigger chaos in financial markets, leading to millions of job losses and the erasure of $15 trillion in wealth.

Knowing that a painful recession is at stake, "many leading Republican lawmakers are demanding that their new House majority use the debt limit as leverage to force the Biden administration to accept sweeping spending cuts that Democrats oppose, creating an impasse with no clear resolution at hand," the Washington Postreported last week.

Manchin claims to have spoken "briefly" with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) about the TRUST Act. Asked about the White House's opposition to attaching any policy concessions to a debt ceiling agreement, Manchin said he believes the Biden administration will change its tune and negotiate with Republicans.

Alex Lawson, the executive director of Social Security Works, told Common Dreams earlier this week that President Joe Biden should "reiterate his commitment to only signing a clean debt limit increase, and specifically rule out a closed-door commission designed to cut Social Security."

Lawson's sentiment was echoed Saturday by Gunnels, who wrote on social media: "I'm old enough to remember that the disastrous Bowles-Simpson 'fiscal commission' came very close to passing Congress some ten years ago. Bernie led the fight against it. It was a bad idea then, it is an even worse idea now."

Rather than allowing a bipartisan commission to propose devastating cuts, Sanders argued, "we must instead expand Social Security."

Surveys have shown that U.S. voters are strongly opposed to cutting or privatizing Social Security and want Congress to expand the program. Last year, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) led the introduction of the Social Security Expansion Act, which would lift the cap on income that is subject to the Social Security payroll tax and boost the program's annual benefits by $2,400.

According to Data for Progress, 76% of likely voters—including 83% of Democrats, 73% of Republicans, and 73% of independents—support imposing, for the first time, payroll taxes on individuals with annual incomes above $400,000 per year to fund an expansion of Social Security benefits. Currently, annual earnings above $160,200 are not subject to the Social Security payroll tax.

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