Five Republican Myths Employed at Recent Social Security Hearings
Representative John Larson (D-CT), Chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, is holding historic hearings on expanding Social Security. These are the first such hearings in nearly half a century. At the hearings, Republican members of Congress are cloaking their desire to cut Social Security in dulcet tones of bipartisanship. In doing so, they are spreading damaging myths about Social Security. Here is the truth regarding the following five claims pushed by Congressional Republicans in these hearings:
- Claim that to be bipartisan, Democrats must agree to Social Security benefit cuts –though even the Republican base rejects cuts and wants benefits expanded
Two comprehensive legislative Social Security proposals have been introduced in the current Congress so far. The Social Security 2100 Act, sponsored by Representative John Larson (D-CT), has over 200 cosponsors; the Social Security Expansion Act, sponsored by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), is cosponsored by a who’s who of leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination, including Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Kamala Harris (D-CA). Both bills, which have companions in the other chamber, increase benefits for every current and future Social Security beneficiary. They also restore Social Security to long-range actuarial balance: the first, for three-quarters of a century; the second, for half a century.
Neither bill has a single Republican cosponsor. Nevertheless, what the Democrats are proposing is fully bipartisan. It is bipartisan in the way that matters. An overwhelming majority of Republican voters, according to poll after poll, support what the Democrats are proposing.
Just a few weeks ago, on March 21, the Pew Research Center released a poll showing that 68% of those identified as Republican/Lean Republican believe that Congress should make no cuts to Social Security whatsoever. A year ago, in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, Public Policy Polling found that 56% of those who voted for Donald Trump and 55% of those who identify as Republican would be more likely to vote for a candidate who “supported expanding and increasing Social Security.”
Furthermore, a 2014 National Academy of Social Insurance survey found that 80% of Republicans believe that Social Security is more important than ever; 72% of Republicans responded that they “don’t/didn’t mind paying Social Security taxes;” and 65% of Republicans agreed that “we should consider increasing Social Security benefits.”
Perhaps most striking, the same National Academy poll found that 69% of Republicans supported “increasing the Social Security taxes paid by working Americans,” if needed to “preserve Social Security benefits for future generations.” That percentage increased to 71% when the question was whether “top earners” should pay more.
Talk of bipartisanship by Republican politicians simply cloaks their desire for cuts. Representative Larson called out the hypocrisy in an early hearing: “Gee, you know, funny thing, we introduced [the Social Security 2100 Act] 6 years ago, and we couldn’t even get a public hearing on it for 6 years. And so the ‑‑ let’s say the spirit of bipartisanship was a little waning.”
- Claim that both parties need “political cover” for a “compromise” when it’s only Republicans who need that cover – to make unpopular benefit cuts
During the hearings, Rep. Drew Ferguson (R-GA) expressed his desire for political cover. He stated, “…someone on the left side of the aisle will stand up and say we’ve got to talk about Social Security. What does our side do? We basically, we basically tear them down. Let a Republican stand up, and talk about this issue, and what happens from the other side of the aisle? There’s an assault coming at us… This is going to be a very interesting conversation and we quite candidly need, as both Republicans and Democrats, the political cover to have these conversations in a very honest way to reach a compromise position.”
As explained in the first myth-busting answer, Democrats are not looking for political cover. Chairman Larson is committed to transparency.
When politicians seek to enact polices that the American people oppose, they look for closed-door deals and fast-track processes. When Congress considers proposals that the American people support, such as the Democratic plans to expand rather than cut Social Security, deliberations can occur in the sunshine. When politicians vote the way their constituents want, they can do so in the open.
In the hearings, not a single Republican offered a proposal to restore Social Security to long-term actuarial balance. Instead, they asked witnesses what they liked in a proposal by former Representative Sam Johnson (R-TX), without themselves ever taking a position on its provisions. It is noteworthy that the Johnson proposal was only introduced once. And that was in the lame duck session following the 2016 election. It was introduced with no cosponsors, and was never introduced again. Conveniently for Republicans, Johnson is now retired.
Close analysis shows why no current Republican politician has embraced the Johnson legislation. The bill would cut benefits for current beneficiaries, and make even bigger cuts for future beneficiaries. Indeed, in the guise of restoring Social Security to long-range actuarial balance, the Johnson bill would cut benefits by substantially more than if Congress took no action whatsoever in the future to bring in additional revenue.
Worse, it would radically transform Social Security, gradually but inexorably changing it from an insurance program that replaces wages in the event of disability, death or old age to a subsistence-level benefit largely unrelated to prior earnings.
No Republicans in the current Congress have introduced a plan that would restore Social Security to long-range actuarial balance, as they claim they are committed to do. Rather, they make phony claims, like the following.
- Claim that expanding Social Security and restoring it to long-range actuarial balance without benefit cuts will somehow hurt the economy rather than grow the economy
During the hearings, Rep. Ron Estes (R-KS) said “We need to ensure the solution doesn’t involve some devastating tax increases which will result in the economy slowing down.” In truth, cuts, not expansions financed by sensible and affordable revenue increases, are what will hurt the economy.
A 2013 report sponsored by the AARP found, “Every dollar of Social Security benefits generates about $2 of economic output.” In 2012 alone, Social Security benefits were responsible for generating over 9.2 million jobs and more than $370 billion in salaries, wages and other compensation. Those benefits created around $1.4 trillion in economic output. Social Security’s contribution to the economy accounted for over $222 billion in tax revenues to states, localities and the federal government. Because the vast majority of Social Security’s 63 million beneficiaries and their families are low or moderate income, they tend to spend their benefits immediately in the local community in which they live.
Social Security is especially important to rural communities, which tend to be older. A 2011 study by the Center for Rural Strategies found that Social Security provided 9.3% of total income in rural counties in 2009. Some rural counties have substantially higher percentages. In Alcona, Michigan, for example, 20.1% of total personal income in 2010 came from Social Security. Similarly, 20% of total personal income in the rural county of Hickory, Missouri came from Social Security. Likely, these percentages are higher today. By comparison, the percent of total income from Social Security in those two counties in 1970 was 10.9% and 11.5%, respectively – about half what it was in 2010.
Those favorable economic impacts on local communities are likely larger today. They would be larger still if benefits are expanded.
- Claim that expanding Social Security will hurt younger generations, despite the fact that they’ll be the ones who need expanded benefits the most
During the hearings, Republican Ranking Member Tom Reed (R-NY) bemoaned the impact of expanding Social Security on millennials, noting gravely, “We cannot forget about the next generation, and recent college graduates, who are already drowning in student debt.” We must address the student debt crisis by canceling it and making public college tuition free, just as public high school is. But we shouldn’t use student debt as an excuse to not expand Social Security. In addition to a student debt crisis, the nation faces a looming retirement income crisis, which will cause those very millennials to rely even more heavily on Social Security than today’s retirees.
In the same hearing, Rep. Reed wondered if “we’re asking millennials to pay a higher tax burden for a program that they don’t believe will still be there.” This rhetoric ignores how Social Security provides invaluable life and disability insurance for younger workers and their families, and how younger Americans overwhelmingly support Social Security and oppose benefit cuts. It also ignores that if Rep. Larson’s bill becomes law, Social Security will be able to pay all benefits for the next three-quarters of a century and beyond. That should restore young people’s confidence. That sense of security is a valuable benefit in its own right.
Ironically, neither Rep. Reed nor any of the other Republicans asked the view of Shaun Castle, a millennial who was testifying. Mr. Castle is a military veteran who suffered a spinal cord injury while serving our country. Fortunately, he had earned Social Security’s disability insurance protection. He would have explained how important Social Security is to all of us, young and old alike.
The Republican effort to turn millennials against seniors is an old divide and conquer tactic. Fortunately, families don’t work that way. Young people are worse off, not better off, if the Social Security their parents and grandparents receive is inadequate to support them. And seniors are worse off, not better off, if their grandchildren are drowning under student debt and are not paid a living wage.
The nation should increase the federal minimum wage to $15. It should make public university tuition free, just as public high schools are. It should cancel student debt. And it should expand Social Security. Instead of engaging in intergenerational warfare, let’s celebrate that Social Security is a program that benefits all generations.
- Claim that Social Security is a problem rather than the solution that it is
Social Security’s projected shortfall is unremarkable and easily eliminated. Social Security is 100% funded for more than ten years and over 90% funded for the next quarter of a century.
To provide context, Congress enacted the Pension Protection Act of 2006 out of concern about the financial well-being of so-called multiemployer plans. The legislation established three categories of plans, based on the strength of their funding and ability to pay promised benefits. Plans that are deemed in critical condition are said to be in the red zone; plans that are “endangered,” in the yellow zone; and healthy plans, in the green zone. Under those identical standards, Social Security is easily in the green zone!
Nevertheless, Republican politicians seek to scare the American people by implying that Social Security is a big problem or worse, in crisis. In the recent hearings, for example, Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-TX) claimed that the Congress needs to “fix this broken program.”
What the Republicans never acknowledge is that Social Security is a solution. It is a solution to the nation’s retirement income crisis. It is a solution to the intolerable economic squeeze on America’s families. It is a solution to the upward redistribution of wealth the nation has witnessed over the last few decades.
I am confident that the American people will see through the Republican lies and support the effort to expand this successful, essential program.