Biden should take the best ideas from all of the Democratic plans and introduce a unified Democratic Social Security plan on the White House lawn, then spend the next year campaigning on it.
This week, nearly 200 House Democrats, led by Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), introduced Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust. The legislation would expand Social Security’s modest benefits, with no cuts, and keep the system strong for decades to come..
Senate Democrats are taking action to protect and expand Social Security, as well. On the same day that Rep. Larson introduced his legislation, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) held a Senate Budget Committee hearing on his legislation, the Medicare and Social Security Fair Share Act. The hearing on the Whitehouse legislation, which brings in enough revenue from the wealthiest among us to ensure that all benefits will be paid in full and on time for the next 75 years and beyond, was aptly named: “Protecting Social Security for All: Making the Wealthy Pay Their Fair Share.”
Earlier this Congress, Senators Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) introduced their own bill, the Social Security Expansion Act. Like the Whitehouse legislation, the Sanders-Warren bill ensures that all benefits can be paid for the next 75 years and beyond. Like the Larson bill, the Sanders-Warren bill expands Social Security’s modest benefits both across-the-board and in important targeted ways.
Republican politicians are so desperate to conceal their plans to slash Social Security because they know how unpopular these cuts are with even their own base.
These bills (and other Democratic plans) have a lot in common. They keep Social Security strong for the foreseeable future by requiring the wealthiest to pay their fair share. None of them cut benefits; most expand them. They are all extremely popular with Democratic, Republican, and independent voters—but not with Republican politicians. None of these bills have a single Republican co-sponsor.
Nor have Republicans introduced Social Security legislation of their own. The closest they’ve come to releasing a Social Security plan is the 2024 budget of the Republican Study Committee (RSC), a group that includes about 70% of House Republicans. The RSC budget includes large cuts to Social Security and Medicare, cloaked in nearly-inscrutable language.
The text of the RSC budget calls for “modest adjustments to the retirement age” but doesn’t specify what those “adjustments” are. Only when a reporter asked did RSC leadership admit they plan to raise the retirement age to 69 for everyone who is currently 59 or younger. Because of the way that Social Security benefits are calculated, raising the statutory full retirement age two years is mathematically indistinguishable from a 13% across-the-board benefit cut. The budget would also “make modest changes to the primary insurance amount (PIA) benefit formula,” which is D.C. insider speak for decimating middle-class Social Security benefits.
Revealingly, most of the RSC budget’s Social Security section doesn’t focus on specific policies at all. Instead, the RSC spends paragraph after paragraph demanding “bipartisanship” on Social Security. Ironically, they castigate President Joe Biden and Democrats for allegedly supporting a 23% benefit cut in the next decade, which is what will happen if Congress does nothing to address Social Security’s modest funding shortfall.
A trained psychologist might explain that the accusation is political projection, given that Democrats have (as described above) introduced a number of bills to eliminate the shortfall, while also expanding benefits. Republicans are the ones who haven’t introduced any legislation, or any plans beyond the heavily concealed benefit cuts in the RSC budget, to address the shortfall.
Tellingly, when Biden made the completely true comment that Republican politicians favor benefit cuts, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) was caught on camera screaming that this truthful statement was a lie! Republican politicians are so desperate to conceal their plans to slash Social Security because they know how unpopular these cuts are with even their own base. Recent polling from Data for Progress shows that only 3% of voters, and 2% of Republicans, support reducing Social Security benefits.
House Republicans are not quick to call for bipartisan action on other major issues. They do so on Social Security because they want political cover for their unpopular benefit cuts. Unfortunately, the mainstream media is enabling Republican efforts to avoid political accountability.
The media refuses to take Democratic plans to protect and expand Social Security seriously, and fails to call out Republicans for their unwillingness to state what they are for, not just what they are against.
Instead of reporting about Democratic plans to protect and expand Social Security, the media largely ignores them. Reporters are implicitly dismissing these bills because they cannot pass the House and Senate without Republican support. Instead of pressuring Congressional Republicans to introduce their own legislation, the mainstream media provides the Republicans with the cover they seek by claiming that both parties are avoiding action on Social Security.
As a result of this failure by the Fourth Estate, too many voters don’t know how far apart the parties are on Social Security. That’s because the media refuses to take Democratic plans to protect and expand Social Security seriously, and fails to call out Republicans for their unwillingness to state what they are for, not just what they are against.
In furtherance of this false narrative, Republicans and their allies in the media insist that the only solution is to go behind closed doors and emerge with a “balanced package” that includes benefit cuts. This ignores the multiple Democratic plans that both strengthen solvency and expand benefits, and pay for it entirely by requiring the wealthiest among us to contribute their fair share. There’s no need to cut benefits for anyone!
One man has the power to change the media failure: President Biden. Earlier this year, Biden showcased the power of the presidential bully pulpit when he used the State of the Union address to call out Republicans for their plans to cut Social Security and Medicare—and take the programs off the table for debt ceiling negotiations.
Now, it’s time for Biden to take the next step. Opposing Republican plans to cut benefits is important, but not enough. Biden should take the best ideas from all of the Democratic plans and introduce a unified Democratic Social Security plan on the White House lawn, then spend the next year campaigning on it.
If Biden champions a plan that expands benefits with no cuts, while requiring those earning over $400,000 to pay more, the mainstream media will be unable to ignore it.
To truly draw a contrast, Democrats must line up behind a presidential Social Security plan that expands benefits while requiring millionaires and billionaires to pay more. After all, Donald Trump, the leading contender to be the Republican standard bearer, has announced that he is against cuts too. His history belies this claim, but the media are not likely to challenge him on this point. Even Trump, though, does not support increasing Social Security benefits, nor requiring billionaires like himself to pay more into the system.
If Biden champions a plan that expands benefits with no cuts, while requiring those earning over $400,000 to pay more, the mainstream media will be unable to ignore it. Though it won’t become law this Congress, it will become an issue in the 2024 election. If Republicans insist on benefit cuts either explicitly or implicitly by refusing to offer an alternative, voters will know.
If that happens, the future of Social Security will become a key election issue—particularly among older and rural voters who tend to vote Republican. The question of whether to cut Social Security or expand benefits is a matter of values. That is what elections are supposed to be about.
If Democrats retain the White House and the Senate, while taking back the House, at least partly on the strength of the Social Security issue, they will be ready in 2025 to force Congressional votes on their plan. If Republicans don’t want to keep losing elections, they will have no choice but to get on board.
That is the way to resolve this issue. Another commission is certain to fail, just as the Bowles-Simpson Commission and other closed-door efforts have. It is time to chart a winning path—one that openly discusses expanding Social Security, an institution so vital to the middle class, while requiring millionaires and billionaires to finally begin to pay their fair share.