Trays of printed Social Security checks wait to be mailed. (AP Photo/Bradley C Bower)
When Congress returns from its five-week recess this fall, a huge task awaits: passing comprehensive immigration reform. The House will (or, maybe won’t) pass its plan, which will then have to be reconciled with the bill already passed by the Senate, and the final legislation then passed again by both chambers.
Hence, there’s been a lot of coverage about what members are hearing from their constituents about immigration during this recess, and rightly so. But there’s another huge decision Congress must make this fall: funding the government and avoiding the debt ceiling. These negotiations have always produced talk, from both Democrats and Republicans, about cutting safety net—and members of Congress are hearing from their constituents on that, too.
Some brief context: Chained-CPI is a way of recalculating inflation in federal formulas in a less generous way. Obama proposed this to resolve the post-election budget impasse (as well as the summer 2011 debt-ceiling standoff) and also included it in his most recent budget. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell also recently said he’d like to see it enacted. In short, this proposal will definitely be on the table when the two parties try to hash out a deal this fall.
Most notably, Chained-CPI would mean a cut in benefits for people on Social Security: a net loss of $15,615 for average seniors over the course of their retirement if Obama’s proposal is enacted.
And people on Social Security know it. Here is one woman breaking down in tears at a town hall meeting in Iowa with Senator Tom Harkin earlier this month:
I have $624 a month, that’s what I’m living on. Ninety-nine [dollars] of that goes to Medicare Part D and B. After I get my check, in two weeks, it’s gone. I have nothing. I live on what I eat here. And I just do not want my cost of living cut because I’ve paid in since I was 16 to the government. I’m looking for work in my retirement years so that I can exist. I do own my house, but I don’t know how long that will go because I have property taxes to pay.
Harkin has long opposed Chained CPI, as he told the constituent.
The issue also came up at a town hall event with Representative Dan Maffei, a centrist Democrat in New York State. He assured constituents he would oppose Chained CPI this fall:
“I’ve opposed it because at least in this district, we’ve noticed that the inflation seniors actually have to pay already is higher than the current CPI cost-of-living adjustment that you get, not lower,” he said. “You can see this in the last couple of years when there was no adjustment for cost of living because there was allegedly no inflation. But seniors did have inflation.”
In New Hampshire, Representative Annie Kuster, who was narrowly elected in 2012, heard from a 65-year-old coordinator of a local farmer’s market about cuts to Social Security during a telephone town hall meeting. Kuster told the woman “I am determined to stop this.”
Save McConnell, I haven’t uncovered any member openly calling for Chained CPI during the recess. But plenty won’t disavow it. Take Senator Mark Udall, who said during a town hall meeting in Colorado that while he doesn’t prefer Chained CPI, he won’t rule it out. “At this point, I think it is important to exhaust every option with Social Security. There are a lot of things we can do before we turn to that.”
But the backdrop to these spontaneous moments is an increasing progressive campaign to push back against any safety net cuts during the fall—one that’s being mobilized during recess.
Last week, the AARP unveiled a petition specifically opposing Chained CPI with 1.5 million signatures.
They dropped it off in Capitol Hill offices to await members upon their return. Elsewhere, the DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare is pressuring key members to opposed Chained CPI, including Representative Vern Buchanan—a top Republican on the Ways and Means Committee, but also the representative with the more Social Security recipients in his district than any other member of the House. He, quite notably, hasn’t taken a position on Chained-CPI.
Meanwhile, a coalition of progressive groups—including the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America, Credo Action, MoveOn.org, Progressives United and Social Security Works—have mobilized to back a plan from Senators Harkin and Mark Begich to actually boost Social Security benefits.
This campaign reared its head in Kentucky this week, where the PCCC released an ad calling on Mitch McConnell to support an expansion of benefits:
This opposition to cutting Social Security—and the push to actually expand it—is operating on a pretty slow burn during this annual Congressional recess. The question is how much heat concerned citizens and activists can bring to DC when it’s dealmaking time in the fall.
Will voters forgive Obama for cutting Social Security?