Friday, November 16, 2012

Hopeful, Barely

Digby remarks "It's good to see some people making the progressive argument at long last. The media seems to be treating them as slightly slow children as usual, nodding patiently at the absurd notion that the "entitlements" don't have to be slashed mercilessly for our own good."     On Thursday, during a press conference following a summit of House and Senate progressives the previous day,

... liberal lawmakers struck a supportive tone when invoking Obama.

"We will have your back, you will have ours, together we will give President Obama all the support he needs during these negotiations," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.)

Social Security does not contribute to the deficit. It is funded by payroll taxes, and currently enjoys a $2.7 trillion surplus, enough to fund the program without any changes until 2033. While lawmakers at Thursday's event universally rejected any cuts to Social Security benefits, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) told the crowd he would be happy to boost revenue for the program by allowing income for people who make more than $108,000 a year to be subject to the payroll tax. Doing so, he said, would allow beneficiaries to receive an additional $65 a month through 2050.

"If you wanna fix Social Security, there it is. Make those making millions of dollars a year pay the same thing and the same rate as those making 40 or 50 or 60 thousand dollars a year," Harkin said. "This is not magic. It can be done."

Medicare, by contrast, is a major driver of long-term deficits, driven by the abnormally high cost of health care in the United States. Whitehouse said that any changes to Medicare included in a debt-reduction package should focus on reducing health care costs, not on cutting benefits for seniors.

Whitehouse also said that the Defending Social Security Caucus, a 19-member group of senators founded by Sanders, would create a "firewall" in Congress to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from cuts. Sanders highlighted Wednesday comments from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) who said he would oppose any deal to cut the deficit that would reduce Social Security benefits. The notion that Social Security is in dire financial straits, Reid says, is a "myth" created by Republicans.

Recent history suggests a bit of skepticism is in order.    In late August, 2009 leaders of the House Progressive Caucus delivered to the White House a letter signed by 57 Democrats characterizing any health care bill without "a public option built on the Medicare provider system and with reimbursement based on Medicare rates-not negotiated rates" as "unacceptable"- and noted it must be available immediately "and not contingent on any trigger."

At the time, the prescient Greg Sargent warned

Should Obama jettison the public option, progressives will come under tremendous pressure to back the plan anyway. White House advisers will likely insist that liberals mustn’t deny the president a historic victory and enable a defeat that could cripple the first African-American presidency.

Forty- two Democrats stood up and issued an ultimatum- or at least what they wanted viewed as an ultimatum- and exactly zero (0) of those Democrats ended up voting against the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act without a public option, with or without reimbursement based on Medicare rates.

And now we have 29 members of the United States Senate addressing to the President a letter (PDF) in which they maintain

... we believe it would be a serious mistake to cut Social Security benefits for current or future beneficiaries as part of a deficit reduction package.  To be sure, Social Security has its own long-term challenges that will need to be addressed in the decades ahead.  But the budget and Social Security are separate, and should be considered separately.

Credit those Senators for stating, dangerous in the Age of Obama, a few simple truths about Social Security:   the average monthly benefit is low "by international standards;" it is not "welfare;" and of course, that it operates independently, cannot borrow, pays all benefits from its trust fund, and is separate from the federal budget, thus not contributing to the deficit.   But the letter does not address Medicare and does not define "cuts" (omitting reference to chained CPI), and does not pledge to oppose any reduction in benefits (though considering the experience of health care, that may be an asset).  

Still, there were 24 Democrats who chose not to sign the letter. Significantly, their number included Obama's closest ally in Congress, Dick Durbin, and John Kerry, a likely Obama nominee to head the departments of Defense or State.  Kerry of Massachusetts- Massachusetts!- may be reluctant to offend or challenge the President, who tends to be sensitive to criticism from liberals.

Resistance from the left (what is left of it in the U.S. Senate, or in either chamber, in The Age of Obama) is greater on Social Security than on Medicare, for which the best-case scenario is a reduction merely in provider benefits.  But there are trying times ahead, as one would expect with a (Eisenhower) Republican in the White House.

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