Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sent a message to supporters yesterday, warning of a real threat to Social Security. By any fair measure, she’s right.
“We’ve known for years that Social Security Disability Insurance is set to run low in 2016, and most people assumed that another bipartisan reallocation was coming,” the senator wrote. “But now, thanks to the Republican ideological war on our most important national safety net, disabled Americans could suddenly face a 20% cut in their Social Security checks next year.”
Let’s recap for those just joining us. The Social Security system provides disability payments to Americans who want to work but can’t for health reasons. For generations, when the disability-insurance program runs short on funds, Congress transfers money from elsewhere in the Social Security system to prevent benefit cuts. The solution, sometimes called “reallocation,” has never been especially controversial – in fact, it’s been done 11 times over the last seven decades.
But last month, congressional Republicans adopted a rule change that makes it almost impossible to approve the usual, straightforward fix. GOP lawmakers seem to want to create the conditions for a crisis.
All of which led to an important Senate hearing yesterday.
Carolyn Colvin, acting commissioner for the Social Security Administration, urged senators to act first to avert the crisis at hand and then begin serious negotiations on finding a longer-term solution. She said the threatened cut in disability payments – about 19 percent – would be a “death sentence” for many of the poorest recipients, but time and again, she refused to opine on more concrete options going forward.When Colvin read aloud the president’s six principles for future reforms, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) was scornful. “That’s a set of principles that makes sure we do absolutely nothing meaningful,” Graham said. “If that’s the president’s plan, we’ll never get there.”
And by “meaningful,” it appears Graham and other Senate Republicans are waiting for the White House to propose cuts to Social Security. (Ironically, President Obama was open to modest Social Security cuts as part of a grand bargain with GOP lawmakers, but Republicans have refused to consider any possible concessions and effectively ruled out the possibility of a compromise.)
The Politico report added that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), the Senate Budget Committee’s ranking member, “angrily accused the GOP of ‘manufacturing a crisis’ to hide its intent to resurrect past proposals to cut Social Security benefits and privatize the system.”
This has the benefit of being true. Addressing the upcoming shortfall in the disability-insurance program should be easy. Republicans are ensuring that it’s not, hoping to exploit a manufactured crisis to force Social Security cuts they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get.
Indeed, the literal name for yesterday’s hearing for the GOP-led committee was, “The coming crisis: Social Security Disability Trust Fund Insolvency.” There would be no crisis, and no threat of insolvency, if Republicans hadn’t already ruled out the straightforward solution lawmakers have relied on for decades.
Budget Committee Chairman Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) said yesterday, “I’m hoping the president will take an active role in this.” Expect more of this kind of rhetoric: Republicans will feign outrage over Obama refusing to offer far-right solutions the GOP-led Congress considers acceptable.