House Speaker Mike Johnson

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) walks to the floor for a vote on Capitol Hill on October 26, 2023 in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Coalition Warns Against 'Fiscal Commission' That Would Fast-Track Social Security Cuts

"The only reason to create a fast-track, closed-door commission is to overthrow the will of the American people by cutting their hard-earned benefits," said Social Security Works president Nancy Altman.

More than 100 organizations, including the largest federation of labor unions in the United States, released a joint letter to members of Congress on Wednesday opposing Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson's push for a "fiscal commission" that opponents warn would fast-track cuts to Social Security.

"The White House has accurately described such a commission as a 'death panel' for Social Security," reads the new letter, which was signed by Social Security Works, the AFL-CIO, the Alliance for Retired Americans, the American Federation of Teachers, and dozens of other groups.

"It is imperative to understand that Social Security does not add a penny to the federal debt," the letter continues. "It has its own dedicated revenue, cannot spend a penny unless it has sufficient dedicated revenue to cover the cost of all benefits and associated administrative costs, and has no borrowing authority."

"Congress should not abdicate its responsibility to make hard choices through regular order by hiding behind a fiscal commission," the letter adds. "Congress already has a process to confront the federal debt. That process is known as reconciliation. Revealingly, Social Security cuts are excluded from the reconciliation procedure, because, as previously stated, the program is totally self-funded, cannot pay benefits or associated costs without the revenue to cover the costs, has no borrowing authority, and, therefore, does not add a penny to the deficit."

The letter was released days after Johnson (La.)—who previously helped craft budget proposals calling for trillions of dollars in cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid—pitched the idea of a bipartisan, bicameral fiscal commission to Senate Republicans. According to Johnson, his proposal "was met with great enthusiasm."

Rank-and-file House Republicans have also shown an interest in establishing a commission to propose changes to mandatory spending programs such as Social Security. Last month, the GOP-controlled House Budget Committee held a hearing titled, "Sounding the Alarm: Examining the Need for a Fiscal Commission." In late September, House Republicans approved a continuing resolution that proposed forming such a commission.

The Koch-tied group FreedomWorks and other right-wing organizations have joined the call for a bipartisan fiscal commission, which is far from an original idea.

In 2021, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) led a bipartisan group of lawmakers in introducing the TRUST Act, a bill that would establish bipartisan panels with mandates to produce legislation that "improves" the finances of Social Security and other trust fund programs. The legislation would then receive expedited consideration in both chambers of Congress, with no amendments allowed.

Romney's TRUST Act, which resembles more recent fiscal commission proposals, was endorsed by former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) and former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, who co-chaired the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform—commonly known as the Bowles-Simpson Commission.

Formed during the Obama presidency, the panel recommended steep cuts to Social Security benefits that Congress ultimately rejected.

"Congress should address Social Security in the sunlight, through regular order, as it always has."

In their letter on Wednesday, the progressive advocacy coalition noted that some have compared Johnson's proposed fiscal panel to the Greenspan Commission, a body formed in the early 1980s ahead of the 1983 Social Security amendments that raised the retirement age, among other changes.

"However, they are nothing alike," the letter argues. "The Greenspan Commission recommendations were nothing more than recommendations. What was ultimately proposed and considered by Congress went through regular order, with committee hearings and the ability to amend and debate, both in committee and on the floor of both the House and Senate."

A group of individuals who worked as staffers on the Greenspan panel or for its members released a statement Wednesday affirming that point and voicing opposition to the renewed push for a fiscal commission.

"Today's policymakers should not use the Greenspan Commission as the rationale for using a fast-tracked commission to push through highly unpopular and unwise benefit cuts," the statement reads. "With the disappearance of traditional pensions, Social Security is more important than ever."

Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works and a former top staffer on the Greenspan Commission, said Wednesday that "Congress should address Social Security in the sunlight, through regular order, as it always has."

"The only reason to create a fast-track, closed-door commission is to overthrow the will of the American people by cutting their hard-earned benefits," said Altman. "Anyone who supports this commission is supporting benefit cuts."

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