"At today's hearing, Republicans made the true purpose of their 'fiscal commission' crystal clear: demolish Social Security and Medicare behind closed doors," said one campaigner.
The Republican-led push to establish a fiscal commission for the U.S. debt was met with vocal opposition during a House Budget Committee hearing on Wednesday, with progressive advocates and Democratic lawmakers calling the proposal a thinly veiled ploy to further undermine and cut Social Security and Medicare.
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), one of eight witnesses who testified at Wednesday's hearing, said he was "a little skeptical" that Republican lawmakers are now concerned about the national debt given that they have driven it up with tax cuts for the rich and large corporations in recent years—and are still trying to increase it.
According to one analysis, the series of tax cuts approved under former Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump have added $10 trillion to the debt since their enactment and are responsible for the bulk of the increase in the debt ratio since 2001.
Social Security, by contrast, is
not a driver of federal deficits.
"If we want to ensure long-term solvency [for Social Security], there are two choices: Some on the other side think we should cut benefits, I think we should ask the ultra-rich to pay their fair share. We don't need a commission to tell us that," McGovern said during his testimony. "And my fear is that a commission would be used by some as an excuse to slash Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and other federal anti-poverty programs."
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a member of the House Budget Committee who served on the infamous Bowles-Simpson commission that proposed deep cuts to Social Security, expressed similar concerns during Wednesday's hearing.
Schakowsky said she was "happy" the Bowles-Simpson proposals—which she vocally opposed at the time—weren't adopted and warned that a fiscal commission of the kind backed by Republicans and right-wing Democrats is "a way for members of Congress to get out from under having to take the blame for the kinds of cuts that may be presented."
In an op-ed for Common Dreams on Wednesday, Schakowsky wrote that "if Republicans cared about improving our fiscal position, they would demand the rich pay their fair share."
"If Republicans wanted to actually solve our budget challenges, they would robustly fund tax enforcement to ensure corporations are complying with laws already on the books," she added. "But Republicans aren't serious about the deficit. They aren't even serious about governing. They are serious about only one thing, and that's ripping away Social Security from seniors behind closed doors."
Wednesday's hearing examined three pieces of legislation put forth by bipartisan groups of lawmakers in the House and Senate.
A bill introduced earlier this month by Sens. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) and Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.)—both of whom testified at Wednesday's hearing—would form a 16-member bipartisan, bicameral fiscal commission comprised of 12 elected officials and four outside experts tasked with crafting legislation to "improve solvency of federal trust funds over a 75-year period."
If approved by the commission, the legislation would be put on a fast track in the House and Senate.
Romney insisted during his testimony Wednesday that he doesn't know of a single Republican or Democrat who wants to cut Social Security and said benefit reductions should be off the table.
But Social Security Works, a progressive advocacy group, pointed out that a proposal released earlier this year by the Republican Study Committee (RSC)—a panel comprised of 175 House Republicans—called for raising the Social Security retirement age, which would de facto cut benefits across the board.
Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Texas), who presided over Wednesday's hearing, is a member of the RSC. During his opening remarks, Arrington described efforts to prevent what he called a "sovereign debt crisis" as "our generation's World War."
Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, told Common Dreams that "at today's hearing, Republicans made the true purpose of their 'fiscal commission' crystal clear: demolish Social Security and Medicare behind closed doors, while avoiding accountability from voters."
"Chairman Jodey Arrington referred to the commission's supporters as 'partners in crime,'" Lawson added. "That's exactly what they are: criminals who are plotting to reach into our pockets and steal our earned benefits."
"It should be a national scandal that middle- and working-class families have to pay Social Security taxes on all of their income but millionaires and billionaires do not."
Instead of taking the deeply unpopular step of slashing benefits, Democrats who spoke at the budget committee hearing argued that Congress should pass legislation requiring the rich to contribute more to Social Security. This year, because of the payroll tax cap, millionaires stopped paying into the program in late February.
"It should be a national scandal that middle- and working-class families have to pay Social Security taxes on all of their income but millionaires and billionaires do not," said McGovern.
Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, said at Wednesday's hearing that Congress could extend Social Security's solvency through the end of the century by requiring the rich to pay more in taxes.
"I think that is fair. I think that is appropriate," said Boyle. "And for those who disagree, I would be very interested in seeing what their plan is and their alternative."
Following the hearing, Rep. Summer Lee (D-Pa.) delivered a speech on the House floor condemning Republicans for working to "establish a death panel commission to gut earned benefits" and described the effort as part of a "cycle" that must be opposed.
"First, Republicans pass tax handouts for their filthy rich donors, promising a trickle-down miracle that never has and will never happen—from Reaganomics to Trump's tax scam," said Lee. "Then, when their tax scam causes the economy to slow and deficits to grow, they refuse to correct their mistake. Instead they blame immigrants, poor folks, Black folks, and brown folks."
"Then they repeat the cycle," she continued, "hoping enough of us will forgive or forget their scheme to tear away Medicare and Social Security and believe their lie that they were 'only after' food assistance, healthcare, and housing for poor folks—not your earned benefits—when the truth is that they always were and always will be after it all."