Why some worry about Social Security amid debt ceiling negotiations
The midterm elections made two key federal programs seniors rely on — Social Security and Medicare — a topic of national conversation.
Now, as the final vote tally comes in — with a Democratic majority in the Senate and a Republican majority in the House of Representatives — advocates for the programs are also calling the results of the ballots a win.
The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare saw more than 70 of the nearly 100 candidates it had endorsed win, according to its president and CEO, Max Richtman.
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“Overall, I think it was a good Election Day and election week,” Richtman said. “It was positive for seniors and the programs that we care so much about.”
Some key wins, according to Richtman, included Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly in Arizona over Republican candidate Blake Masters, as well as Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire against Republican Donald Bolduc.
Both Masters and Bolduc had mentioned privatizing Medicare or Social Security during their campaigns, according to Richtman. However, both candidates walked back those comments.
Yet even as champions for preserving Social Security have been reelected or newly elected, other leaders have called for rethinking how those programs are approached.
Democrats are hoping to address 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 candidate for U.S. Senate Mandela Barnes is introduced at a Fish Fry to Save Social Security event on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022 in Milwaukee. Barnes lost the election to incumbent Republican Sen. Ron Johnson.
Kent Nishimura | Los Angeles Times | Getty Images
Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida has called for sunsetting federal programs every five years so Congress can reevaluate them. Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin has called for moving Social Security to the federal discretionary budget, which would require reauthorizing the program’s spending every year.
The Republican Study Committee’s 2023 budget also calls for some big changes, such as raising the retirement age to 70 and requiring 40 years of work. “For most people, that will 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 put forward by Sen. Johnson and the senator from down in Florida to cut or make fundamental changes in Social Security and Medicare,” Biden said during a Nov. 9 press conference.
“That’s not on the table,” Biden said. “I will not do that.”
Nevertheless, some worry the program could be susceptible to changes amid debt ceiling negotiations.
“They have been very clear,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said during an election night interview with PBS NewsHour. “They’re going to use the debt ceiling vote as a way to cut Social Security.”
“They call them entitlements,” she said. “We call them insurance programs that people have paid into.”
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President Joe Biden delivers remarks on protecting Social Security and Medicare and lowering prescription drug costs in Hallandale Beach, Florida, on Nov. 1, 2022.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
The fears that Social Security and Medicare could be at risk in those debt ceiling negotiations are partly based on past compromises, according to Richtman.
“We’ve seen this before, in 2011 and 2012, when that need to raise the debt ceiling was used to extort some pretty horrible concessions from Democrats on Social Security and Medicare,” Richtman said.
“It didn’t turn out as bad as we thought, but it did result in spending caps that hurt these programs,” he said.
Today, Social Security beneficiaries and others who seek the agency’s services notice long wait times at its field offices, through its 1-800 telephone number or via postal mail. There’s “no question” that is a result of the 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 it should be their highest priority to raise the debt limit enough so it doesn’t come up again until 2025,” Altman said.
Not everyone sees the looming debt ceiling negotiations as a vulnerable moment for the program.
“I think it’s unlikely that Social Security gets 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 substantive discussions around Social Security reform were missing from the political campaigns in the runup to the election, Akabas is optimistic there is opportunity for both parties to collaborate.
“There are ongoing conversations that could develop into a true bipartisan plausible reform in the near future,” Akabas said.