Why some worry about Social Security when negotiating the debt ceiling

The midterm elections made two key federal programs that seniors rely on — Social Security and Medicare — a national topic of conversation.

Now that the final vote count is in – with a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the House of Representatives – even supporters of the programs are calling the election results a win.

According to its President and CEO Max Richtman, the National Committee for Preserving Social Security and Medicare won more than 70 of the nearly 100 candidates it had endorsed.

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“Overall, I think it was a good election day and week,” Richtman said. “It’s been positive for seniors and the programs that are so close to our hearts.”

According to Richtman, the most important victories included Democratic Senator Mark Kelly in Arizona over Republican nominee Blake Masters and Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire over Republican Donald Bolduc.

According to Richtman, both Masters and Bolduc had mentioned privatization of Medicare or Social Security during their campaigns. However, both candidates went back to those comments.

But even when advocates for maintaining Social Security have been re-elected or re-elected, other leaders have called for reconsideration of how these programs are approached.

Democrats hope to raise the issue on their terms during the lame duck session while the party still has control of Congress.

Democrats push back on GOP proposals

Democratic nominee for US Senate Mandela Barnes will be unveiled at a Fish Fry to Save Social Security event on Wednesday, October 19, 2022 in Milwaukee. Barnes lost the election to incumbent Republican Senator Ron Johnson.

Kent Nishimura | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

Florida Republican Senator Rick Scott has called for federal programs to be shut down every five years so Congress can reevaluate them. Republican Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has called for moving Social Security to the federal discretionary budget, which would require annual reauthorization of the program’s spending.

The Republican Studies Committee’s 2023 budget also includes some big changes, such as raising the retirement age to 70 and requiring 40 years of work. “For most people, that’s going to lower their benefits,” said Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works.

Even as President Joe Biden called the election a “good day for democracy,” he vowed to fight changes to the programs.

“Under no circumstances will I support the proposal by Senator Johnson and the Florida senator below to cut Social Security and Medicare or make fundamental changes,” Biden said during a Nov. 9 news conference.

Biden warns Medicare and Social Security are in jeopardy if Republicans win Midterms

“That’s not on the table,” Biden said. “I won’t do that.”

But some fear the program could be vulnerable to changes during debt ceiling negotiations.

“They were very clear,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during an election night interview with PBS NewsHour. “They will use the vote on the debt ceiling to cut Social Security.”

“They call them claims,” ​​she said. “We call them insurance programs that people have paid into.”

‘No question’ today’s problems because of yesterday’s deals

President Joe Biden delivers remarks protecting Social Security and Medicare and reducing prescription drug costs on November 1, 2022 in Hallandale Beach, Florida.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Fears that Social Security and Medicare could be at risk in these debt ceiling negotiations stem in part from previous compromises, Richtman said.

“We saw this before, in 2011 and 2012, when the need to raise the debt ceiling was used to extort some pretty terrible concessions from Democrats on Social Security and Medicare,” Richtman said.

“It wasn’t as bad as we thought, but it imposed spending caps that hurt those programs,” he said.

Today, Social Security recipients and others who use the agency’s services experience long waits at their field offices, on the 1-800 phone number, or in the mail. There’s “no question” that this is a result of spending decisions made a decade ago, Richtman said.

As Democrats push to address the debt ceiling during the lame duck session, Altman said “it’s the best thing that can be done” to ensure Social Security is protected.

“I think their top priority should be to raise the debt ceiling enough that it doesn’t come up again before 2025,” Altman said.

Not everyone sees the forthcoming debt ceiling negotiations as a vulnerable moment for the program.

“I think it’s unlikely that Social Security will be put on the chopping block in the context of the debt limit,” said Shai Akabas, director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

While there have been no substantive discussions about social security reform in the political campaigns leading up to the elections, Aqabas is optimistic that there are opportunities for both parties to work together.

“There are ongoing talks that could evolve into truly bipartisan, plausible reform in the near future,” Akabas said.

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