Expand Social Security

For 75 years Social Security has been keeping senior citizens out of poverty. For that entire time the Republican Party has been scheming to get rid of the retirees’ safety net, the crown jewel of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

In 1999, Republicans in Congress managed to repeal the New Deal-era Glass-Steagall Act, which separated commercial banks, with their federally-insured deposits, from investment banks and insurance companies. As was predicted at the time, Wall Street bankers became casino managers and economic chaos resulted. We’ll be cleaning up the mess from the 2008 meltdown for years; in the meantime millions of Americans are out of work.

Now the same plutocrats who pushed for deregulation of banks are pushing for the privatization of Social Security and Medicare, the last hurrah of the New Deal coalition. (Lyndon B. Johnson got Medicare passed 45 years ago as an amendment to the Social Security Act.) Republicans are reluctant to talk about their plans, for fear of alienating elderly voters, but the “Road Map for America’s Future,” prepared by the GOP numbers man, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), calls for privatizing both popular “entitlements.”

If Social Security had been privatized in the past decade, as then-President George W. Bush proposed, we might now be facing panic by older Americans who saw their retirement accounts decimated with the stock market crash of 2008. But as IRAs and 401(k)s dropped to a fraction of their former worth, the two things people nearing retirement age could count on were Social Security and Medicare.

For most of the past 75 years, as long as the Republicans have been scheming to dismantle Social Security, Democrats have been united in protecting the retirement programs. Unfortunately, the plutocrats lately have captured the ears of enough corporate Democrats to fear that some changes may be afoot to “save” Social Security and Medicare.

President Obama named a National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform to study the federal deficit and make recommendations on how to deal with it. And despite the fact that Social Security is separately funded, and the Social Security Trust Fund currently has a $2.8 trillion surplus that is expected to grow to $3.3 trillion by 2020, the commission reportedly has its eyes not on bloated Pentagon programs, war profiteers or tax breaks for the rich, but on trimming Social Security and Medicare.

The problem with Social Security is that its $2.8 trillion surplus was borrowed to pay for Bush’s wars and tax cuts for the rich in the past decade, and the rich don’t want to pay the money back.

It’s hard to get working people excited about voting when the unemployment rate is nearing 10% and the president’s “cat food commission” is believed to be waiting until after the election to recommend cuts in Social Security and Medicare. So it’s a good idea to contact your member of Congress and senators now and let them know that a vote to cut benefits to either program will signal the end of their political careers.

Tell them the only acceptable fix of Social Security is to remove the cap on taxable income, which is now $106,800, so that all wage-earners pay the same rate. That not only would allow the restoration of the retirement age to 65 (it increases to 67 for people born after 1959, and some cat food commissioners are proposing to extend the retirement age to 70).

Steven Hill of the New America Foundation figures that getting wealthy wage-earners to pay their fair share of payroll taxes would allow a 60% increase in the Social Security payout. Social Security benefits now replace only 33% to 40% of a worker’s pre-retirement wage; the program was designed to supplement a worker’s pension and savings, but pensions are becoming a thing of the past. Increasing the payout would help close the gap for seniors who have lost their pensions, 401(k)s and houses as corporations have backed away from funding retirement plans and laid off employees to increase their profits. Along with savings from closing other tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, Social Security could double its payout, Hill suggests in “Secure Retirement for All Americans.” (See Hill’s report at newamerica.net or Hank Kalet’s column on page 16.) And doubling Social Security checks for 53 million seniors and disabled persons would be a great stimulator for the economy.

As for Medicare, the best solution would be to expand the health program to cover everybody, which would dramatically lower the per-patient cost. But the private health insurance corporations smothered that initiative before the health reform debate even got started. Medicare Advantage, the experiment in privatizing senior health care since 1997, showed that corporatized Medicare cost about 14% more than regular Medicare with no improvement in care. The new health reform law cut the Advantage subsidy; it is expected to save Medicare $575 billion over the next decade and result in lower Medicare premiums.

The first step toward closing the federal deficit should be to allow the Bush tax breaks to expire for everybody earning more than $250,000 a year. That would keep the tax breaks for the middle class but generate $680 billion in revenue over the next decade. If conservatives really were concerned about the national debt, it would be a no-brainer.

As the congressional midterm elections approach, Republicans do not have a plan to put people back to work, other than Voodoo II: cut taxes and privatize Social Security and Medicare.

This is the wrong time to be complaining about not enough progressive populists on the ballot in November. If you want progressive-populist candidates to run, you need to start recruiting them for the 2012 election. In November you have a choice between a Democratic Congress that passed an economic stimulus bill that may have headed off another depression, health-care reform that for the first time establishes a right to effective health coverage, and reforms of some of the worst abuses on Wall Street — and all that was accomplished over the almost unanimous opposition of a Republican minority that was determined to sabotage the economy and hurt working people for partisan gain.

The House leadership under progressive Speaker Nancy Pelosi has had to contend with conservative Democrats, including 54 members of the Blue Dog Coalition, among the 255 House Democrats, but the 83 members in the Progressive Caucus include 10 committee chairs, and 33 reps have joined the Populist Caucus organized by Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) to promote the interests of working families and the middle class. House Democrats have consistently passed more progressive bills than the Senate, where the bills get bottled up.

In the Senate, approximately 19 Democrats and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) voted for populist positions on amendments to the financial reform bill in May. In April 2009, about 45 Democrats defied the banksters to vote for Sen. Dick Durbin’s “cramdown amendment” that would have allowed bankruptcy judges to modify mortgage terms to help troubled homeowners keep their homes. The banksters were able to peel off a dozen Dems to kill that amendment. And at times a majority of Senate Democrats were said to support the public option in health-care reform before the insurance industry won that Whac-A-Mole game.

The point is that there is a center-left majority in Congress, but there is not a progressive supermajority. As long as Senate Democrats allow themselves to be limited by a filibuster cloture rule that was never intended to be the standard threshold for passing a bill, corporate lobbyists will have an effective veto in the Senate. And they have no reason to let a real campaign finance bill get passed that would reduce pols’ reliance on corporate cash.

If Dems keep the Senate majority, the first order of business should be to do away with the 60-vote rule. After the tricks Republicans have pulled in the past year and a half, you can be sure that if they ever gain control of Congress and the White House again, the filibuster rule will be gone in a New York minute and Social Security and Medicare will be parceled out shortly after.

Don’t let Republicans gain control of either chamber, even if it means re-electing conservative Dems Nov. 2 who don’t measure up to your standards. — JMC

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2010


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