President Obama in his proposed budget posited cuts to Social Security cost-of-living increases as a way to get Republicans to go along with higher taxes on the wealthy. It’s a strategy that’s likely doomed to fail, and if it doesn’t, it will tarnish his legacy as a Democratic president.
Most people start contributing to the Social Security fund as teenagers, and rightly expect to start getting that money back when they’re in their 60s. Neither the president nor Congress should be tinkering with benefit formulas that would result in less income for many people who already are living on the edge of the poverty line.
The White House may say the president was merely laying down a card in his high-stakes budget game with the GOP, and that the card still could be picked up and tucked away. But the damage has been done: Obama is violating a promise he made when running for president in 2008 and is proposing to shrink the deficit on the backs of senior citizens.
Beginning in 2015, according to the president’s plan, Social Security recipients, military retirees and civilian federal retirees would get smaller benefit increases each year. The proposal would reduce average annual cost-of-living adjustments, or COLAs, by 0.3 percentage points. This year, the COLA was a mere 1.7 percent. Under the new measure, it would have been about 1.4 percent.
In a 2008 speech to the AARP, Obama, reacting to John McCain’s suggestion that Social Security cost-of-living adjustments might have to be reduced, vowed that he would never do that.
The president’s budget planners must have been thinking it was open season on older people, as the document also proposes $305 billion in cuts to Medicare over the next decade. Medicare is the over-65 health-insurance program run by the federal government. With so many baby boomers reaching that age each year, those cuts will be devastating.
With Social Security, the common myth is that the fund is dishing out more benefits than taxes it is taking in, and therefore is going broke. If that were the case, where’s the proposal to raise Social Security taxes for the wealthiest wage-earners, or trim benefits for the rich, who really don’t need them to make ends meet?
The truth, according to some observers, is that the Social Security Trust Fund would be in great shape if the government had not borrowed so much from it over the past several decades.
William Greider, writing in The Nation, said “the cost-of-living gimmicks Obama has proposed will not shave a penny off the federal deficits or debt. That is because the Social Security benefits are not paid by the federal budget. They are drawn from the Social Security Trust Fund — the money paid in by working people every payday. People know this is their money, not some government handout.’’
The government’s debt to the Social Security fund stands at nearly $3 trillion. By cutting benefits, the government is trying to put off the day when it will have to repay the fund to keep it afloat; in other words, when Social Security has its money back and can use it for paying benefits to the retired workers who contributed to the fund.
If the president is successful in his dangerous game of budget roulette with Republican leaders, Democrats who side with the lame-duck Obama and seek re-election in 2014 will be facing an irate “gray panther” voting block. GOP candidates will be able to point fingers and claim it was the Democrats who cut your benefits.
The fight, however, is just beginning and opponents are not waiting for the ballot box.
Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has launched one of many petition drives at SignOn.org. His states that a cut to Social Security benefits would hurt senior citizens and is “an idea not befitting a Democratic president. If you want to reform Social Security, make the wealthy pay their fair share by lifting the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes.”
If the petitions and election fears fail to sway, Greider has another suggestion for voters: “If the president and Congress succeed in this malicious scheme, they will come back again and again to cut more and more. If the politicians join this sordid conspiracy, voters should come after them with pitchforks and torches.”
Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at email@example.com. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.