House Budget Committee Chairman Jodey Arrington, R-Texas, right, and Speaker of the House Mike Johnson

House Budget Committee Chairman Jodey Arrington (R-Texas), right, and Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-La.) are seen during a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, November 14, 2023.

(Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

The Republican Plot to Cut Social Security Behind Closed Doors

GOP lawmakers want the commission to commit the dirty work of slashing Social Security and Medicare to death without leaving their fingerprints on the murder weapon.

This week, House Budget Committee Republicans held a hearing on creating a so-called “fiscal commission.” The hearing made it crystal clear what their real goal is: decimate Social Security and Medicare behind closed doors.

Their commission is a scheme, specifically designed to avoid accountability from voters. They would require Congress to vote on the commission’s recommendations right after the 2024 election, without any amendments. This will allow members to run on the claim that they won’t cut Social Security and Medicare, and then turn around and vote for cuts. They will insist that they hated the cuts, but had to do something about the federal debt, so their hands were tied. Some voting for it will have lost re-election or will be retiring, with nothing to lose. All of them will be as far away from the next election as possible.

During the hearing, Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), one of the witnesses, stated that “If raising the [retirement] age needs to be part of that discussion then a fiscal commission will tell us that.” He added: “You cannot, rationally, take any option off the table.”

Those who are most familiar with past commissions know exactly why a new one would be so dangerous.

“Everything on the table” is Washington-speak for doing what the American people don’t want.

What options do Republicans want to put on the table? That’s not hard to glean for any of us who follow the issue closely. The Republican Study Committee, a group that comprises about 75 percent of House Republicans, has released a budget that would raise the retirement age, decimate middle-class Social Security benefits, and privatize Medicare. Past versions of their plan have also included a stingier cost-of-living adjustment. That’s what Republicans mean when they say that “everything is on the table.” What they want is political cover.

Those who are most familiar with past commissions know exactly why a new one would be so dangerous. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) served on the Bowles-Simpson Commission, which today’s commission proponents cite as a model. During the hearing, she said that “this kind of commission is a way for members of Congress to get out of having to take the blame for the kinds of cuts that may be presented.”

In a Common Dreamsop-ed this week, Schakowsky was even more specific. “The speaker [of the House Mike Johnson]... has devised an accountability-free way to gut [Social Security]. [We] don’t have to guess that this is what will happen, because Republicans have tried this before. During discussions on forming Bowles-Simpson in 2010, Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.) astutely pointed out that ‘The Chairman and Ranking Republican Member of the Budget Committee have painted a big red bull’s eye on Social Security. Their commission is a Social Security-cutting machine.’ Sen. Baucus was right.”

Those seeking to create another Social Security-cutting machine sometimes argue that the problem isn’t commissions per se, and point to the Greenspan Commission as an example of a successful one. But those who make that claim were not involved 40 years ago. I staffed Alan Greenspan in his capacity as Chair of that commission. Recently, I and other former commission staffers, who worked for both Democrats and Republicans, issued a statement to set the record straight and to argue forcefully against what is being proposed today.

We conclude our statement by quoting the late Robert M. Ball, who then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill put on the Greenspan Commission to represent him. As the talk of the Greenspan Commission as a model for today arose, Ball was so concerned that he requested—literally on his deathbed—that the chapter from his memoir about the Greenspan Commission be published as a separate monograph. He made the deathbed request in an effort to avoid the misuse of the Greenspan Commission to force the type of commission that Speaker Johnson is determined to create. In the monograph, Ball warned that “to suggest that the Greenspan Commission provides a model for resolving questions about Social Security’s future would be laughable if it were not so dangerous.”

The real reason—the only reason—to create a closed-door, fast-track commission is to do what the American people don’t want: Cut benefits.

Notably, unlike today’s effort to avoid political accountability, the Greenspan Commission’s recommendations were just that: recommendations. They did not have the force of law and were not fast-tracked. Rather, they went through regular order, with open hearings, and the ability to amend and, in the Senate, to filibuster.

Congress should simply consider, through regular order, one of the several Social Security legislative proposals that have been introduced in this Congress. All the options are already known. No commission is needed – other than to avoid political accountability. Rather than establish a commission to amend Social Security, Congress should do its job: Determine Social Security’s future through regular order, in the light of day, as the Democrats want to do.

As Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) said at the hearing: “There already is a bipartisan forum where these kinds of decisions should get made. It's called Congress and we shouldn't pass the buck to a fiscal commission to do the work that we ourselves don't want to do.”

McGovern was being diplomatic with his colleagues. What Republicans want is not to avoid the work but rather to cut Social Security without leaving fingerprints on the murder weapon. President Biden understands this clearly. His White House has called the planned commission a death panel for Social Security and Medicare. House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries is staunchly opposed to the commission. So are AARP, the AFL-CIO, Indivisible, MoveOn, the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, and over 100 other organizations who have signed letters in opposition.

What Republicans want is not to avoid the work but rather to cut Social Security without leaving fingerprints on the murder weapon.

Those opposed to a Social Security cutting-machine in the form of a fast-track commission represent the overwhelming will of the American people — Republicans, Democrats, and Independents. Voters of all parties, from MAGA supporters to Democratic socialists, overwhelmingly support protecting and expanding Social Security, not cutting it, and paying for it by requiring the wealthy to contribute their fair share. That’s the real bipartisan solution, and there’s no reason to go behind closed doors to enact it.

The real reason—the only reason—to create a closed-door, fast-track commission is to do what the American people don’t want: Cut benefits.

As Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) masterfully explained during the hearing, Republicans like Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) and House Budget Chairman Jodey Arrington (R-TX) happily voted for deficit-exploding tax handouts to the wealthy. Now they are crying crocodile tears about the deficit and demanding closed-door cuts to Social Security — which doesn’t contribute a single penny to the deficit.

A few corporate-friendly Democrats testified at the hearing, including retiring Senator Joe Manchin. But they are, thankfully, extreme outliers. They represent wealthy donors (and are uber-wealthy themselves), not their constituents. In fact, Manchin is so uninterested in representing his constituents that he’s leaving the Senate.

At this week’s hearing, Democrats—including Schakowksy, McGovern, Scott, and Ranking Member Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.)—were outspoken in their opposition to a commission. Every Democrat should join them, and make it clear that there’s nothing bipartisan about cutting our earned benefits behind closed doors.

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