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This Political Family Has Been Fighting for Social Security and Medicare for All Since the 1930s

The day that John Dingell Jr. died, he told his wife that it was her job to bring Medicare for All over the finish line. And she will.

President Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act while John Dingell Sr., behind him, watches. (Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia, modified from the original.)

President Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act while John Dingell Sr., behind him, watches. (Photo: Public domain via Wikimedia, modified from the original.)

Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-MI) is a leader in the fight to improve Medicare and expand it to cover everyone in America. With Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), she is one of the two lead sponsors of the Medicare for All Act of 2019, which was just introduced with more than 100 cosponsors. Dingell and Jayapal co-chair the Medicare for All caucus. She is also leading the fight to increase Social Security benefits, as co-chair of the Expand Social Security Caucus and as an original cosponsor of the Social Security 2100 Act.

At the introduction of the Medicare for All Act, Dingell gave an impassioned speech about why we need to make health care a right for everyone in America. She spoke about how when Social Security was first proposed, right-wingers attacked it with the same cynical arguments they’re now using against Medicare for All. But now, we can’t imagine a world without Social Security. Rep. Dingell is particularly familiar with this history because her family has been fighting for Social Security and universal guaranteed health insurance since the New Deal.

Representative Dingell’s father-in-law, John Dingell Sr., was first elected to Congress in 1932. He was part of the Democratic wave that swept into Congress alongside President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his promise of a New Deal for the American people. Dingell fought tirelessly for FDR’s agenda. He was so instrumental in the enactment of the Social Security Act of 1935 that he was invited to attend the signing ceremony and watch FDR sign the legislation into law.

In signing the Social Security Act into law, Roosevelt proclaimed that it was “a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.” Roosevelt, Dingell, and the other founders understood that to have true economic security, there must be protection against the death of a breadwinner, temporary and permanent disability, and, most fundamentally, guaranteed health care extending from the cradle to the grave.

Yet, they were pragmatists. In his message of January 17, 1935, transmitting the legislation to Congress, Roosevelt had cautioned:

“It is overwhelmingly important to avoid any danger of permanently discrediting the sound and necessary policy of Federal legislation for economic security by attempting to apply it on too ambitious a scale before actual experience has provided guidance for the permanently safe direction of such efforts. The place of such a fundamental in our future civilization is too precious to be jeopardized now by extravagant action.”

Consistent with that cautious but steady incremental approach, Social Security was expanded, with Dingell’s support, to provide life insurance in 1939. And in 1943, Dingell introduced H.R. 2861; two other staunch New Dealers, Senators Robert Wagner (D-NY) and James Murray (D-MT), introduced its companion in the Senate.

The bills proposed expanding Social Security to cover temporary and permanent disability. Most notably, they were the first set of bills in the history of the country to propose national health insurance.

Dingell re-introduced national health insurance every Congress. But, with the 1952 election of President Eisenhower, the first Republican president in two decades, and a return to Republican control of Congress, Dingell and the other advocates for universal, government-sponsored health insurance decided to expand their strategy. In addition to continuing to push for a comprehensive solution, they would pursue an incremental approach.

The idea was to enact Medicare for seniors, then add people with disabilities, and then children, gradually adding more parts of the population until universal health care was achieved. Consistent with this new tactic, Representatives Dingell and Emanuel Celler (D-NY), together with Senators Murray and Hubert Humphrey (D-MN), introduced companion bills that proposed medical care to those receiving Social Security retirement benefits.

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For the next few years, Dingell continued to fight for Medicare for seniors as a first step, as well as for comprehensive national health insurance. In 1955, though, he died in office at the age of 61.

Dingell’s son beat 13 rivals to win the Democratic primary for the seat left vacant by his father’s death. John Dingell Jr. (Representative Debbie Dingell’s late husband) won the general election and picked up the mantle of his father in the fight for the expansion of Social Security and for comprehensive national health insurance.

In 1956, Dingell voted to add long-term disability to Social Security’s protections. And he continued the fight for government sponsored national health insurance. On the first day of every new Congress, Dingell Jr. introduced legislation to enact Medicare for seniors as well as legislation to enact national health insurance for everyone.

In 1965, Dingell had the high honor of presiding over the House of Representatives when Medicare passed. In 1972, with Dingell’s support, Social Security’s modest benefits were increased and indexed automatically to keep pace with inflation. Medicare was expanded to include people with disabilities.

But that is when expansion stopped—until now. John Dingell Jr. passed away last month. The day that he died, he told his wife that it was her job to bring Medicare for All over the finish line. And she will. Representative Debbie Dingell has the tenacity, wisdom, policy expertise, and political acumen to see Social Security expanded—not cut—and to see Medicare improved and expanded to all of us.

She will not have to fight alone. Now that Democrats are in control of the House of Representatives we will see progress, with the support of Rep. Dingell, on the expansion of both Social Security and Medicare. This vibrant new Congress will be holding hearings on expanding Social Security and Medicare, and should hold votes on both. That will force Republicans to come out from behind their lame rhetoric of platitudes and attacks.

Forced to vote, Republicans will either have to go along with it, offer an alternative, or simply stand in the way by voting no. If they choose one of the latter two, these overwhelmingly popular ideas will appropriately be defining issues of the 2020 election.

Expanding Social Security and improving Medicare and extending it to everyone will improve the economic security of all of us, including seniors, women, children, veterans, and people of color. Despite the many challenges to which an expanded Social Security and Medicare for All are solutions, the wealthiest among us—the donors—generally resist paying their fair share. But that is the value of free and fair elections. The donor class has disproportionate resources and access, but they have fewer votes than the rest of us. Once the debate is in the open, it shouldn’t be long before Social Security expansion and Medicare for All are signed into law.

We can all anticipate those happy days when Rep. Debbie Dingell votes the expansion of Social Security into law and when she votes Medicare for All into law. How appropriate for her to take these votes, just as her father-in-law voted for Social Security in 1935, and her beloved husband voted in 1965 for the first step to Medicare for All.

This article was produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

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Nancy J. Altman

Nancy J. Altman

Nancy J. Altman is a writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute. She has a 40-year background in the areas of Social Security and private pensions. She is president of Social Security Works and chair of the Strengthen Social Security coalition. Her latest book is The Truth About Social Security. She is also the author of The Battle for Social Security and co-author of Social Security Works!

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