Sanders, Brown, Grijalva and Conyers: “Hands Off Social Security”

Jodi Jacobson

A group of Senators and Representatives have a message for the deficit reform commission and the White House: Keep your hands off Social Security.

A group of Senators and Representatives have a message for the deficit reform commission and the White House: Keep your hands off Social Security.

Senators Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and Sherrod Brown (D-OH), and Representatives Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), John Conyers (D-MI) and Daniel Maffei (D-NY) briefed reporters on their efforts to head off changes to Social Security that they deem not only unwarranted but dangerous. Sanders and Brown have introduced a Senate Resolution anticipating changes they believe will be proposed by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, the body created by President Obama to make recommendations on reducing the deficit.

In the Senate, Brown and Sanders have introduced a “sense-of-the-Senate” resolution on Social Security, which if passed would:

[Express] the sense of the Senate in opposition to privatizing Social Security, raising the retirement age, or other similar cuts to benefits under title II of the Social Security Act.

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As of this writing, the resolution has 11 co-sponsors.

A letter from House members to President Obama opposing changes to Social Security is now circulating for signatures.  “You have charged the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform with proposing recommendations that improve the long-term fiscal outlook and address the growth of entitlement spending,” says the letter.

It is our view that Social Security—which is prohibited by law from adding to the national budget deficit—does not belong as part of those recommendations. By 2023, Social Security will have built up a $4.3 trillion surplus, and, without any action, can pay at least 75 percent of all benefits thereafter. Because Social Security is funded separately from the general treasury and has no borrowing authority, it has not contributed to the federal deficit. Despite these facts, some Commission members have repeatedly alleged the need to cut Social Security for budgetary reasons.

Put simply, in the words of John Conyers, these lawmakers want the Commission “to keep their paws off it.”

Today, more than 53 million Americans receive Social Security benefits, including 36.5 million retirees and their spouses, 8.2 million disabled persons and their spouses, 4.5 million surviving spouses of deceased workers, and 4.3 million dependent children.  Social Security makes up virtually the only income available to one-third of elderly citizens in the United States.  It is a critically important resource for older women who are disproportionately represented among the elderly poor.

“Women are almost twice as likely to live in poverty in their senior years as men are,” says a report posted on StrengthenSocialSecurity.org by Wider Opportunities for Women and the National Elder Economic Security Initiative.

“Due to pay equity issues, the occupational segregation of women in low-wage jobs, and their cycling in and out of the workforce due to caregiving responsibilities, women often find themselves with a Social Security payment that provides inadequate income. The average annual Social Security income for all women provides a single elder homeowner without a mortgage just over 60% of the income required to achieve economic security.”

According to the Congressional Budget Office, full benefits will still be available to every recipient until 2039 even if no changes are made to the Social Security program, and enough funding will remain after that date to pay about 80 percent of promised benefits.

But given the background and leanings of the co-chairs of the commission, former Republican Senator from Wyoming, Alan Simpson, and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles (now President of the University of North Carolina), not to mention Simpson’s comments this summer deriding Social Security as “a milk cow with 310 million tits,” the Senators and Representatives are deeply concerned that the Commission will recommend at least three steps: Privatizing Social Security, cutting benefits to recipients, and raising the retirement age.

The lawmakers argue that based on the evidence, none of these steps are necessary.

Calling Social Security “America’s most successful and reliable retirement program,” Sanders and Brown strenuously objected to what they see as gross misrepresentations of the program.

Social Security is not in crisis or going bankrupt and has been running surpluses for the last quarter-century, the Senators noted, and currently has a $2.6 trillion surplus. “It has not contributed a dime to the Federal budget deficit or national debt,” said Sanders.

They object to privatization as unnecessary and risky.  “Proposals to privatize Social Security would jeopardize the retirement security of millions of Americans by relying on the ups-and-downs of the volatile stock market to provide benefits,” states the Senate Resolution.  Such a move, said Brown, would only serve “big money interests [that would] love to see Social Security privatized.”

They also object to increases in the retirement age.  Shifting to a later retirement age, argued the lawmakers, would have an undue burden on the millions of people who engage in demanding physical work throughout their lifetimes and who have paid into Social Security.

“I have a neighbor,” said Brown, “who has been a carpenter all his life.  He is now in his fifties, with a bad back and knees.  He can not continue working as a carpenter til age 70 or 75.  There are many people who just can not work at their jobs until these later ages.”

Social Security benefits have already been cut by 13 percent, as the Normal Retirement Age was raised in 1983 from 65 years of age to 67 years of age by 2022, noted the Senators. 

“The physical demands of a job differ from industry to industry and, on average, the longevity of the lives of individuals differ significantly according to their level of income, education, and access to health care. Forty-five percent of workers 58 years of age or
older are in jobs that are physically demanding or have difficult working conditions.

They also point out that raising the retirement age is especially burdensome to African-American, Latino, and older low-income workers, and that the current job market is one of the worst on record for Americans 55 years of age and above. 

“Social Security,” said Grijalva, “is universal and is solvent. It needs to be strengthened, not tampered with.”

“We oppose all cuts to Social Security,” said Conyers. “This is something that I hope the Obama Administration will join with us on; no benefit cuts, no raising retirement age, no privatization.”

And if the Administration does adopt any such recommendations coming from the Commission? “They’ll have a difficult time with us,” Grijalva warned.

News Politics

Clinton Campaign Announces Tim Kaine as Pick for Vice President

Ally Boguhn

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

The Clinton campaign announced Friday that Sen. Tim Kaine (R-VA) has been selected to join Hillary Clinton’s ticket as her vice presidential candidate.

“I’m thrilled to announce my running mate, @TimKaine, a man who’s devoted his life to fighting for others,” said Clinton in a tweet.

“.@TimKaine is a relentless optimist who believes no problem is unsolvable if you put in the work to solve it,” she added.

The prospect of Kaine’s selection has been criticized by some progressives due to his stances on issues including abortion as well as bank and trade regulation.

Kaine signed two letters this week calling for the regulations on banks to be eased, according to a Wednesday report published by the Huffington Post, thereby ”setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.”

Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, told the New York Times that Kaine’s selection “could be disastrous for our efforts to defeat Donald Trump in the fall” given the senator’s apparent support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). Just before Clinton’s campaign made the official announcement that Kaine had been selected, the senator praised the TPP during an interview with the Intercept, though he signaled he had ultimately not decided how he would vote on the matter.

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Kaine’s record on reproductive rights has also generated controversy as news began to circulate that he was being considered to join Clinton’s ticket. Though Kaine recently argued in favor of providing Planned Parenthood with access to funding to fight the Zika virus and signed on as a co-sponsor of the Women’s Health Protection Act—which would prohibit states and the federal government from enacting restrictions on abortion that aren’t applied to comparable medical services—he has also been vocal about his personal opposition to abortion.

In a June interview on NBC’s Meet the Press, Kaine told host Chuck Todd he was “personally” opposed to abortion. He went on, however, to affirm that he still believed “not just as a matter of politics, but even as a matter of morality, that matters about reproduction and intimacy and relationships and contraception are in the personal realm. They’re moral decisions for individuals to make for themselves. And the last thing we need is government intruding into those personal decisions.”

As Rewire has previously reported, though Kaine may have a 100 percent rating for his time in the Senate from Planned Parenthood Action Fund, the campaign website for his 2005 run for governor of Virginia promised he would “work in good faith to reduce abortions” by enforcing Virginia’s “restrictions on abortion and passing an enforceable ban on partial birth abortion that protects the life and health of the mother.”

As governor, Kaine did support some existing restrictions on abortion, including Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law. He also signed a 2009 measure that created “Choose Life” license plates in the state, and gave a percentage of the proceeds to a crisis pregnancy network.

Regardless of Clinton’s vice president pick, the “center of gravity in the Democratic Party has shifted in a bold, populist, progressive direction,” said Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, in an emailed statement. “It’s now more important than ever that Hillary Clinton run an aggressive campaign on core economic ideas like expanding Social Security, debt-free college, Wall Street reform, and yes, stopping the TPP. It’s the best way to unite the Democratic Party, and stop Republicans from winning over swing voters on bread-and-butter issues.”

Commentary Politics

Is Clinton a Progressive? Not If She Chooses Tim Kaine

Jodi Jacobson

The selection of Tim Kaine as vice president would be the first signal that Hillary Clinton intends to seek progressive votes but ignore progressive values and goals, likely at her peril, and ours.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, former secretary of state and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton has frequently claimed to be a progressive, though she often adds the unnecessary and bewildering caveat that she’s a “progressive who likes to get things done.” I’ve never been sure what that is supposed to mean, except as a possible prelude to or excuse for giving up progressive values to seal some unknown deal in the future; as a way of excusing herself from fighting for major changes after she is elected; or as a way of saying progressives are only important to her campaign until after they leave the voting booth.

One of the first signals of whether Clinton actually believes in a progressive agenda will be her choice of running mate. Reports are that Sen. Tim Kaine, former Virginia governor, is the top choice. The selection of Kaine would be the first signal that Clinton intends to seek progressive votes but ignore progressive values and goals, likely at her peril, and ours.

We’ve seen this happen before. In 2008, then-presidential candidate Barack Obama claimed to be a progressive. By virtue of having a vision for and promise of real change in government and society, and by espousing transparency and responsibility, he won by a landslide. In fact, Obama even called on his supporters, including the millions activated by the campaign’s Organizing for Action (OFA), to keep him accountable throughout his term. Immediately after the election, however, “progressives” were out and the right wing of the Democratic party was “in.”

Obama’s cabinet members in both foreign policy and the economy, for example, were drawn from the center and center-right of the party, leaving many progressives, as Mother Jones’ David Corn wrote in the Washington Post in 2009, “disappointed, irritated or fit to be tied.” Obama chose Rahm Emanuel as Chief of Staff, a man with a reputation from the days of Bill Clinton’s White House for a reluctance to move bold policies—lest they upset Wall Street or conservative Democrats—and a deep disdain for progressives. With Emanuel as gatekeeper of policies and Valerie Jarrett consumed with the “Obama Brand” (whatever that is), the White House suddenly saw “progressives” as the problem.

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It became clear that instead of “the change we were hoping for,” Obama had started on an impossible quest to “cooperate” and “compromise” on bad policies with the very party that set out to destroy him before he was even sworn in. Obama and Emanuel preempted efforts to push for a public option for health-care reform, despite very high public support at the time. Likewise, the White House failed to push for other progressive policies that would have been a slam dunk, such as the Employee Free Choice Act, a major goal of the labor movement that would have made it easier to enroll workers in unions. With a 60-vote Democratic Senate majority, this progressive legislation could easily have passed. Instead, the White House worked to support conservative Democrat then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s efforts to kill it, and even sent Vice President Joe Biden to Arkansas to campaign for her in her run for re-election. She lost anyway.

They also allowed conservatives to shelve plans for an aggressive stimulus package in favor of a much weaker one, for the sole sake of “bipartisanship,” a move that many economists have since criticized for not doing enough.  As I wrote years ago, these decisions were not only deeply disappointing on a fundamental level to those of us who’d put heart and soul into the Obama campaign, but also, I personally believe, one of the main reasons Obama later lost the midterms and had a hard time governing.  He was not elected to implement GOP lite, and there was no “there, there” for the change that was promised. Many people deeply devoted to making this country better for working people became fed up.

Standing up for progressive principles is not so hard, if you actually believe in them. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D- MA) is a progressive who actually puts her principles into action, like the creation against all odds in 2011 of the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, perhaps the single most important progressive achievement of the past 20 years. Among other things, the CFPB  shields consumers from the excesses of mortgage lenders, student loan servicers, and credit card companies that have caused so much economic chaos in the past decade. So unless you are more interested in protecting the status quo than addressing the root causes of the many problems we now face, a progressive politician would want a strong progressive running mate.

By choosing Tim Kaine as her vice president, Clinton will signal that she values progressives in name and vote only.

As Zach Carter wrote in the Huffington Post, Kaine is “setting himself up as a figure willing to do battle with the progressive wing of the party.” Kaine is in favor of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade agreement largely negotiated in secret and by corporate lobbyists. Both Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose voters Clinton needs to win over, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren oppose the TPP because, in Warren’s words, it “would tilt the playing field even more in favor of … big multinational corporations and against working families.”

The progressive agenda includes strong emphasis on effective systems of governance and oversight of banks and financial institutions—the actors responsible, as a result of deregulation, for the major financial crises of the past 16 years, costing the United States trillions of dollars and gutting the financial security of many middle-class and low-income people.

As Warren has stated:

Washington turned a blind eye as risks were packaged and re-packaged, magnified, and then sold to unsuspecting pension funds, municipal governments, and many others who believed the markets were honest. Not long after the cops were blindfolded and the big banks were turned loose, the worst crash since the 1930s hit the American economy—a crash that the Dallas Fed estimates has cost a collective $14 trillion. The moral of this story is simple: Without basic government regulation, financial markets don’t work. That’s worth repeating: Without some basic rules and accountability, financial markets don’t work. People get ripped off, risk-taking explodes, and the markets blow up. That’s just an empirical fact—clearly observable in 1929 and again in 2008. The point is worth repeating because, for too long, the opponents of financial reform have cast this debate as an argument between the pro-regulation camp and the pro-market camp, generally putting Democrats in the first camp and Republicans in the second. But that so-called choice gets it wrong. Rules are not the enemy of markets. Rules are a necessary ingredient for healthy markets, for markets that create competition and innovation. And rolling back the rules or firing the cops can be profoundly anti-market.

If Hillary Clinton were actually a progressive, this would be key to her agenda. If so, Tim Kaine would be a curious choice as VP, and a middle finger of sorts to those who support financial regulations. In the past several weeks, Kaine has been publicly advocating for greater deregulation of banks. As Carter reported yesterday, “Kaine signed two letters on Monday urging federal regulators to go easy on banks―one to help big banks dodge risk management rules, and another to help small banks avoid consumer protection standards.”

Kaine is also trying to portray himself as “anti-choice lite.” For example, he recently signed onto the Women’s Health Protection Act. But as we’ve reported, as governor of Virginia, Kaine supported restrictions on abortion, such as Virginia’s parental consent law and a so-called informed consent law, which, he claimed in 2008, gave “women information about a whole series of things, the health consequences, et cetera, and information about adoption.” In truth, the information such laws mandate giving out is often “irrelevant or misleading,” according to the the Guttmacher Institute. In other words, like many others who let ideology rather than public health guide their policy decisions, Kaine put in place policies that are not supported by the evidence and that make it more difficult for women to gain access to abortion, steps he has not denounced. This is unacceptable. The very last thing we need is another person in the White House who further stigmatizes abortion, though it must be said Clinton herself seems chronically unable to speak about abortion without euphemism.

While there are many other reasons a Kaine pick would signal a less-than-secure and values-driven Clinton presidency, the fact also stands that he is a white male insider at a time when the rising electorate is decidedly not white and quite clearly looking for strong leadership and meaningful change. Kaine is not the change we seek.

The conventional wisdom these days is that platforms are merely for show and vice presidential picks don’t much matter. I call foul; that’s an absolutely cynical lens through which to view policies. What you say and with whom you affiliate yourself do indeed matter. And if Clinton chooses Kaine, we know from the outset that progressives have a fight on their hands, not only to avoid the election of an unapologetic fascist, but to ensure that the only person claiming the progressive mantle actually means what she says.