Columnist Al Norman: Just another Social Security death panel

The Capitol is seen at sunrise in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023.

The Capitol is seen at sunrise in Washington, Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023. AP PHOTO/J. SCOTT APPLWHITE


Published: 12-05-2023 6:00 PM

The new speaker of the U.S. House, Rep. Mike Johnson of Louisiana, found something to say in his first speech that upset millions of Americans concerned about the future of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid — the so-called budget “entitlements.”

The speaker said it was time to put the brakes on government spending. “It’s unsustainable,” he warned. “We have to get the country back on track. This is not going to be an easy task, and tough decisions will have to be made. But the consequences if we don’t act now are unbearable.”

Johnson supplied his own answer: “We are going to establish a bipartisan debt commission to begin working on this crisis immediately.”

Alex Lawson, the executive director of Social Security Works, responded on social media immediately: “Rep. Mike Johnson has a long history of hostility towards Social Security and Medicare. As Chair of the Republican Study Committee from 2019-2021, Johnson released budgets that included $2 trillion in cuts to Medicare and $750 billion in cuts to Social Security, including: raising the retirement age; decimating middle class benefits; making annual cost-of-living increases smaller ; and moving towards privatization of Social Security and Medicare.”

Social Security Works organized a letter to Congress signed by 100 elderly rights groups. “Social Security is totally self-funded,” the advocates wrote, “cannot pay benefits or associated costs without the revenue to cover the costs, has no borrowing authority, and, therefore, does not add a penny to the deficit.”

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Lawson charged that Speaker Johnson in September joined other House Republicans to vote for a commission designed to cut Social Security and Medicare behind closed doors: “Now that Johnson is Speaker, he will do what the Republicans never stop doing — everything in their power to cut our Social Security and Medicare, by hook, crook, or commission.”

Advocates for Social Security have plenty of precedents to make them wary of “bipartisan commissions.” The most “productive” commission was the Greenspan Commission, which President Reagan signed as the 1983 Social Security Reform Act. This law created the first income tax on Social Security benefits of higher income beneficiaries. The Greenspan commission made recommendations that went through the normal congressional process in full public view. But Johnson’s commission would operate behind closed doors.

In 2010, President Barack Obama created the Bowles-Simpson Commission, which recommended $238 billion in Social Security cuts, including an increase in the retirement age for Social Security to 68 by 2050, and 69 by 2075, and lowering the annual cost of living adjustment. But Bowles-Simpson was never passed by Congress.

In 2021, Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah introduced a bill to create bipartisan panels to review the finances of Social Security and Medicare. The bills produced by this commission would get expedited review by Congress. But Romney’s bill never passed.

In 2023, the House Republican budget included a proposal to establish a commission to review and propose legislative changes to Medicare and Social Security. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy announced plans to create a commission to address spending in Social Security and Medicare. The White House called the House budget plan for a commission a “death panel for Social Security.”

Max Richtman, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said: “If Republicans want to cut Social Security and Medicare, they should put proposals on the table and go through the regular legislative process, so that voters know where their representative stands.”

In his 2023 State of the Union Speech in early February, President Joe Biden said: “Social Security and Medicare are a lifeline for millions of seniors … let’s stand up for seniors. Stand up and show them we will not cut Social Security. We will not cut Medicare. Those benefits belong to the American people. They earned it. And if anyone tries to cut Social Security … and if anyone tries to cut Medicare, I’ll stop them. I’ll veto it.”

The House Budget Committee held its first fiscal commission hearing on Nov. 29. U.S. Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts testified that he was “deeply skeptical” of the commission. “There is already a bipartisan forum where these kinds of decisions should get made: It’s called Congress.” McGovern insisted his colleagues in Congress had “driven up our debt with tax cuts” and “we should make the ultra-rich pay their fair share. We don’t need a commission to tell us that.”

If Social Security benefits are slashed, the elderly poverty rate will skyrocket. Call your Congress members at (202) 224-3121. Urge them to add revenue to Social Security, and keep their promises to retirees.

Al Norman of Greenfield worked in the field of elderly home care in Massachusetts for 37 years. He is a regular columnist for the Recorder.