Senate Kicks the “Chained CPI” to the Curb (But Leaves the Back Door Open)

Richard Eskow

Last week the Senate passed the Sanders-Harkin-Hirono Amendment which opposed the Social Security cut and tax increase known as the “chained CPI.” That’s a smart move, and a victory for the public.  It’s also very timely, since the “chained CPI” has repeatedly been raised by the White House in its attempt to forge a “Grand Bargain” with Congressional Republicans.

The Sanders amendment was introduced in order to put Senators on record as either supporting or opposing this unpopular, unwise idea. The Senate’s rejection of the “chained CPI” was a victory for common sense. But they did it by voice vote, which leaves the door open to a deal later on which includes this very bad, very unpopular idea.

Apparently Senators don’t want to be on record as supporting the “chained CPI” – but they don’t want to be on record against it, either.

The Senate, unlike the House, is controlled by Democrats. So we’re forced to conclude that the decision to hold a voice vote was made by the Democrats, not Republicans.  That makes sense, since so many Democratic Senators have been trying to help the White House get this policy into a Grand Bargain. That includes members of the so-called Gang of Six, a corporate- and billionaire-friendly “centrist” group whose members currently include Max Baucus of Montana and Mark Warner of Virginia.

The word “centrist” is in quotes because cutting Social Security is not something the political center wants. Poll after poll has shown, in fact, that a majority of voters across the political spectrum rejects the chained CPI or any other form of benefit cut.  In fact, a recent poll showed that voters would prefer to increase Social Security benefits – and would be willing to pay more in taxed to do it.

No wonder these Senators wanted to vote in secret. If they’re keeping their powder dry for a Social Security betrayal, apparently they don’t want to have to add hypocrisy to their list of sins.

They probably won’t have to in order to lose some elections. The Democratic Party has already paid a huge price just for talking about Social Security cuts.  A Social Security Works poll showed that the party suffered a stunning 25-point plunge in public confidence between 2005 and 2010 on its ability to do a better job than its opposition to protect the program.

That probably contributed to the Democrats’ loss of the House in 2010. Imagine what actually cutting the program would do.  No wonder so many Senators don’t want to be seen supporting the chained CPI – but want to keep the door open to a deal which includes it later on.

Who are the “closet chainers” in the United States Senate? Warner and Baucus are likely “yeses.” What about Sen. Dick Durbin?  Durbin’s a supporter of the “Simpson Bowles” proposal (which includes the “chained CPI”), and his pronouncements on the topic have been less than Shermanesque.  Durbin has said that the chained-CPI cuts are “a possibility, but no decision’s been made.”

Durbin has also said that including Social Security cuts like the chained CPI in budget negotiations is “the wrong way to go.”  But even in that statement, which was billed has his declaration of opposition to it, he was less than unequivocal.  “It may be part of an overall solution,” Durbin then added.

I’d like to know where Senators like Dick Durbin stand on the chained-CPI. I think their constituents would like to know, too.  And I’d like to know where my Senators stand. A commenter on one of my earlier chained-CPI posts says she received a form letter from one of them, Dianne Feinstein, on the subject. The commenter writes:

“In response to a petition I signed, my Senator, Dianne Feinstein explains to me the ‘benefits’ of a ‘Chained-CPI’ and how it will ‘save’ Social Security over ‘112 billion’ dollars during the next ten years. She goes to say that ‘government’ will be ‘restricted’ from using these ‘savings’ for any other purpose.”

That’s nonsense, from my state’s senior Senator. I’d like to see Feinstein go on the record about the chained CPI so she has to defend those comments. But thanks to the voice vote, she doesn’t have to. Sen. Barbara Boxer has taken a more negative tone toward this middle-class tax hike and Social Security benefit cut, but I’d like to see something more definitive from her too.

Roll-call votes are an integral part of the democratic (with a small “d”) process. For too many years we’ve allowed our elected officials to evade accountability on this and other critical issues. In this case, voters who re-elected the President and the Democratic Senate did so in large part because they believed they were going to defend Social Security’s benefits.

I’d like to know if those voters were misled. In fact, one of the best reasons to support public accountability is to prevent voters from being misled. Instead we’ve seen one artificially engineered crisis after another, each of which has been designed to make it look as if these terrible and unpopular policies were unavoidable, that they were needed to avert disaster – almost an act of God.

I want to know: Who’s defending Social Security and protecting middle class tax affordability and who isn’t?

This vote is a move forward for those who want to see Social Security protected. Even its off-the-record voice vote status has an upside: It stands as mute witness to the public’s revulsion at the idea of cutting Social Security benefits for seniors, veterans, and the disabled. It reminds our leaders that some of them are considering an option so disliked and so ill-advised that they can’t be seen doing it in the light of day.

The good news about this vote is that it tells us that the Senate leadership understand that the “chained CPI” is politically toxic. The bad news is that they’re not willing to stand up for what they know is right, or publicly resist what they know is wrong.

They won’t make a case in favor of the chained CPI. Butthey won’t rule it out, either. They act as if they’re ashamed of it – and of themselves for considering it.

They should be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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