There was one small victory that progressives could claim from the otherwise troubling congressional budget deal that was announced Tuesday: Social Security and Medicare were left untouched.
Credit goes to progressives who made calls, signed petitions and showed up at rallies to tell Congress to not cut these earned benefits as part of any budget deal, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus said at a press conference this afternoon.
“Make no mistake about it, these people were hoping and praying to get into our important social insurance programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid and they didn’t do it,” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) said. “They have been trying to get a piece of it for a long time and you all stood up and backed them down, and chased them away from it. They knew they couldn’t get it.”
“Senator Murray and Representative Ryan announced a budget deal [last night] that specifically didn’t deal with Social Security or Medicare,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.). But, he added, “Many of us have concerns about that deal, that doesn’t include investment in jobs, the precedent that it sets for pensions for federal employees, and no real tax reform fairness in closing loopholes and creating some revenue.”
“I think it all stems from the fact that we are working from within a box that shouldn’t be there, with the Budget Control Act,” Grijalva continued. “Our goal is to remove this so that Congress can play its legitimate role of setting policy, setting priorities, and setting the budget.”
Ellison defined the parts of the deal that should be disappointing to Democrats. “To understand this deal, you need to understand the difference between doing good and holding on. You need to know the difference in making moves for the American people and just holding the space while we are keeping the wolves outside the door.”
Ellison lamented that neither unemployment insurance nor trade adjustment assistance was included in the agreement. He also called unacceptable the fact that $6 billion were being removed from the pensions of federal workers in the future. “Future government employees want to retire too, right? We should be expanding retirement, not shrinking it,” he said.
The $6 billion cut from future federal employees pensions is worrying due to recent attacks many federal employees have faced at the behest of conservatives in Congress. These include furloughs due to the sequester, sixteen days off due to the Republican-imposed government shutdown, a wage freeze and pension cuts. “They think that I should feel good because they cut six billion as opposed to 20 billion, like I’m grateful for that? They should be expanding, not decreasing [federal pensions],” Ellison said.
Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) turned the conversation onto going on offense on the budget negotiations, instead of always trying to protect the earned benefits of Americans. To this point, she noted that we could improve the solvency of Social Security by removing the cap on payroll taxes collected from high earners, allowing students to receive Social Security benefits while pursuing a degree, allowing maternity leave, and improving the cost-of-living allowance to reflect more accurately the average American senior’s living expenses – instead of the “chained CPI” proposal that would cause benefits to fall behind the increased costs seniors face.
While Social Security and Medicare have been protected, that does not mean that Democrats should be content with the deal. Millions of Americans could be left out in the cold if Congress neglects to act on unemployment insurance, and we need a budget agreement that strengthens the social safety net and the economy.