Democrats need to gird for a new battle with Republicans over Social Security and be prepared not to yield any ground in defense of the program, one of the leading Democratic senators on the issue told TPM in an interview.
Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), ranking member of the Senate Finance Committee’s Social Security subcommittee, said that Democrats shouldn’t be willing to negotiate after House Republicans have stated outright that they want to pursue changes to the program.
Brown also expressed confidence that President Barack Obama would hold strong on Social Security, despite concerns among Social Security advocates that the president has shown a willingness to negotiate over the program in the past.
“We have a president who can use a veto pen and will eagerly do it on something like this,” Brown said. He said his confidence in the White House’s position “comes from discussions with them.”
The House passed a rule on the the first day of the new Congress that prohibits a routine transfer of tax revenue between the retirement and disability funds, which is called a “reallocation.” The reallocation has happened on a bipartisan basis 11 times in the past, most recently in 1994. Without it, the disability trust fund is projected to start being unable to pay full benefits in late 2016. Republicans have made clear their intent to use that as leverage to make some changes to the 80-year-old program in exchange for avoiding benefit cuts.
“They want to dramatically slice Social Security, so we negotiate and compromise a small cut in Social Security?” Brown told TPM. “No, that’s not the way you negotiate.”
The White House didn’t respond to TPM’s request for comment on whether the president plans to veto anything other than a “clean” reallocation. In an earlier statement to TPM on the House rule, a White House spokesperson said that the administration, in general, “strongly opposes any efforts to undermine Congress’ ability to reallocate funds between the Social Security retirement and disability trust funds,” which the House rule does.
As TPM previously reported, there had been some concern among Social Security advocates that the White House might entertain cuts if Republicans put them forward in exchange for the revenue transfer. One expert went so far as to say that advocates “don’t trust the president on Social Security.” That was based in part on Obama’s willingness to accept cuts in exchange for new tax revenues during the 2011 debt-limit negotiations.
But Brown said the president had learned from the failure of those negotiations and the overall inability of congressional Republicans to reach compromises in the last four years.
“They compromised on something because they thought good things would happen from it, and the Republicans pulled out,” he said. “The administration knows they want to protect Social Security. They know they need to protect the disabled people on Social Security.”
The disability program covers workers who have paid into the Social Security system and are unable to work for a year or more because of a covered disability. About 11 million people receive disability benefits through Social Security, and they would face a 20 percent cut without the revenue transfer. While congressional Democrats are now in the minority and will be limited in their ability to respond, Brown said they need to “shine a light” on what Republicans are trying to do: targeting the disability program, which has less of a political base compared to the bigger retirement program.
“They can’t go directly after Social Security retirement because that’s people’s parents, but they go after disabled people who don’t have a lobby and they paint the disabled community as people that don’t want to work, just slackers,” Brown said. He referenced comments by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), who suggested that more than half of people on disability “are just anxious or their back hurts.”
“This is a bunch of people, congressman and senators, they’re paid well, who have good government benefits, and they don’t know many people who are on disability,” Brown said. “They talk about them that way, and it’s pretty shameful.”
“The way to beat this stuff back is to shine a light on it and let people draw their conclusions,” he continued. “Why would members of Congress go after disabled people? I think they lose the public debate decisively on this.”