Cicilline Hopes Dems Take Senate

Published in Pawtucket Times on November 9, 2020

On Saturday, November 7, at 11:45 a.m. (eastern Standard Time), as the Trump campaign called for legal challenges looming over ballot counting, CNBC projected Joe Biden to win the U.S. Election, making him president-elect.  As the dust settles over this very divisive election, Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes propelled Biden over the 273 electoral votes needed to win.

With the Democrats now taking control of the White House and maintaining control of the House, even with a loss of seats, the battle for control of the Senate now turns to Georgia with one regular and one special election scheduled to fill a vacancy take place on January 5.  

With garnering less than 50 percent of the vote, in accordance with Georgia law, GOP Sen. David Perdue and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff meet again at a January 5 runoff election.  Rev. Raphael Warnock, the democratic challenger, and governor-appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who replaced Sen. Johnny Isakson when he retired last year, battle in the Peach State for a Senate seat in special-election runoff.

Democrats now have a long-shot of taking control of the Senate with Kamala Harris being elected vice president and if they win the two Senate races in Georgia’s upcoming election. By winning the Senate, both parties will each have 50 seats, Harris tipping the balance of power to the Democrats. 

McConnell, Oversees “Least Productive” Congress in its History

Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI) says that the Democratic-controlled House has had one of the most productive Congresses in the institution’s history. “We’ve passed more than 600 bills in the House, but there are more than 375 of them stuck on Mitch McConnell’s desk, many of them bipartisan,” notes Cicilline, who serves as Co-Chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee.

“Obviously, both Georgia senate races are hanging in balance and it’s important we win them.  A Democratic majority in the Senate will allow for the passage of the “For the People” agenda which creates jobs, raises wages, lowers health care costs and increases access to affordable prescription drugs.  These bills are good for Rhode Islanders and all Americans,” states Cicilline.

“I look foward to working with the Biden Administration to put together a robust agenda for the first 100 days and get to work passing bills that will help Rhode Island’s economy, workers and seniors,” adds Cicilline.

With the release of its 2020 Democracy Scorecard in September, Aaron Sherb, director of legislative affairs for the Washington, DC based Common Cause, documents how a Republican-controlled Senate has resulted in legislative gridlock.  “What the 2020 Democracy Scorecard makes plain is the blatant disregard for democracy reforms in the Senate. “The House of Representatives passed nearly 10 democracy reform bills, often with bipartisan support, this session, but Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) blocked debate and mark-ups on all of these bills and refused to allow a vote,” he said.

In fact, the Senate’s inaction has the 116th Congress on tract to be the least productive in history, with just one percent of the bills becoming law,” charges Sherb. author of the 2020 Democracy Scorecard,

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) strongly agrees with Sherb’s assessment of McConnell’s successful efforts to block Democratic and bipartisan-sponsored common-sense legislation critical to protecting the health and well-being of Americans.  Seniors will not be better off with a GOP-controlled Senate, warns NCPSSM, calling for the Democrats to win the Georgia Senate special elections to take over the control of the Senate.

According to NCPSSM, a Washington, DC-based advocacy group with a mission to protect Social Security and Medicare, “Since 2019, the Democratic-controlled House has served as a firewall against Trump’s efforts to defund, cut and privatize Security and Medicare.  But as long as Republicans control the Senate, legislation to protect and expand seniors’ earned benefits will remain in limbo. Under a Democratic majority, though, seniors would likely see real progress where their financial and health security are concerned.”

NCPSSM charges Senate majority leader McConnell, who gave himself the nickname, the “Grim Reaper,” has buried hundreds of House-passed bills during the 116th Congress that would have benefitted America’s seniors.  He even refused to take up last May’s House-passed COVID-passed relief bill, and the lower chambers recently passed COVID-19 legislation, as the nation’s public health officials battled the spread and spiking of the deadly virus. 

McConnell also blocked consideration of H.R. 3, the Lower Drug Costs Now Act, which the House passed almost a year ago, says NCPSSM. 

H.R. 3 would allow Medicare to negotiate prescription prices with Big Pharma, which would save the government and seniors nearly $350 billion in drug costs. The bill would also expand traditional Medicare by adding dental, vision, and hearing benefits.

NCPSSM says that the GOP Senate Leader will not even allow a bipartisan crafted bill, the S 2543, the “Prescription Drug Pricing Reduction Act, introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), and Ron Wyden (D-OR), to be considered on the Senate floor.  According to the Congressional Budget Office, this legislation would save taxpayers $95 billion, reduce out-of-pocket spending by $72 billion and finally reduce premiums by $1 billion.

The eyes are now on the Supreme Court, where three Trump-appointed Justices will rule on legal issues coming before the nation’s highest court. “If the Supreme Court strikes down the Affordable Care Act, which strengthens Medicare’s finances and included enhanced benefits for seniors (not to mention protecting older patients with pre-existing conditions), a Democratic House and Senate could replace or revise it,” notes NCPSSM. 

House Democrats are considering HR 860, The Social Security 2100 Act, to strengthen and expand Social Security.  The landmark legislation, introduced by Rep. John Larson (D-CT), referred to the Subcommittee on Social Security would keep the program financially healthy through the end of the century, while boosting benefits for all retirees. NCPSSM notes that president-elect Joe Biden has incorporated many of the proposals in this bill into his own plan. 

NCPSSM adds that a Democratic-controlled House and Senate could reduce the financial impact on COVID-19 on current and future retirees’ Social Security benefits.  Under Democratic Senate leadership, notes the Washington, DC-based advocacy group, the upper chamber could work with the House to increase the tiny 1.3 percent cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) to 3 percent for 2021.  which would be welcome news for older Americans who were laid off during the COVID-19 pandemic that sweep the nation, forcing many into early retirement

Finally, NCPSSM says that a Democratic-controlled House and Senate could prevent aging Baby Boomers born in 1960 (and possibly 1961, as well) from suffering a lifetime reduction in their future benefits caused by a COVID-related drop in average wages.

A Final Note:  Let’s Bring Back House Aging Committee

During the last two Congresses, Cicilline introduced a resolution three times to re-establish a House Permanent Select Committee on Aging. Two of the times a GOP-controlled Congress blocked consideration.  Democrat House efforts to impeach President Donald Trump and a continual battle over policy issues with the Trump Administration and the Republican-controlled Senate put Cicilline’s resolution on hold the third time.  

The previous House Aging Committee was active from 1974 to 1993 (until it was disbanded because of budgetary issues) put the spot light on an array of senior issues including elder abuse, helped increase home care benefits for older adults and helped establish research and care centers for Alzheimer’s disease.  

After introducing his resolution this Congress, Cicilline says that a reestablished House Aging Committee could initiate comprehensive studies on aging policy issues, funding priorities, and trends.  Like its predecessor, its efforts would not be limited by narrow jurisdictional boundaries of the standing committee but broadly at targeted aging policy issues, he notes.

According to Cicilline, the House can easily create an ad hoc (temporary) select committee by approving a simple resolution that contains language establishing the committee—giving a purpose, defining membership, and detailing other aspects.  Funding would be up to the Appropriations Committee. Salaries and expenses of standing committees, special and select, are authorized through the Legislative Branch Appropriations bill.

During the 117th Congress, as the House begins its debates on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the Older Americans Act, and other issues of importance to older adults, it will be important to have a House Aging Committee that once again puts the spotlight and attention on America’s aging issues. 

House Subcommittee Panel Makes Call for Expanding, Strengthening Social Security

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 23, 2019

So it goes, to the victor goes the spoils. Over a week ago, House Democratic leadership, now controlling the legislative agenda, pushed to strengthen and expand benefits for the nation’s Social Security program.

With the 116th Congress kicking off on Jan. 2, 2019, as the majority party, the Democrats took over the legislative reins of the House of Representatives from the Republicans, who had held the majority and legislative control of the lower chamber since 2011. Now being in power allows Democratic leadership to control which bills reach the floor for a vote. In this new Congress, legislation reflecting the GOP’s philosophy as to how to fix Social Security (by privatizing the retirement program, cutting benefits, raising the retirement age, even reducing cost-of-living adjustments or lowering earned benefits) would be blocked by Democratic leadership.

Congress Puts Spotlight on Social Security

Last week, Social Security got a full and fair hearing before the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee.

Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.), chairing the House Ways and Means Social Security subcommittee, held a series of panel hearings, calling for the strengthening and protecting the nation’s Social Security program.

“What we’re addressing in these hearings is that Congress hasn’t paid enough attention to Social Security to make sure it’s actuarially sound,” he said, in his opening statement for the March 12th hearing, entitled “Protecting and Improving Social Security: Enhancing Social Security to Strengthen the Middle Class.”

According to Larson, more than 62 million Americans are already receiving Social Security benefits.

“We have a responsibility to act to strengthen this program for them,” he added. “Not to act will amount to a 25 percent benefit cut come 2034. In other words, for the person who was making $50,000 a year throughout their working career, they would actually be living at a poverty level in terms of a benefit that they would receive after these cuts,” he said.

“Not only do we need to work to protect the program, but we need a solution to make the program, as the actuaries say, “sustainably solvent,” or in other words, making sure Social Security remains strong throughout this century, not just for seniors, but for millennials too,” added Larson.

Joan Ruff, AARP’s chair of the Board, testified, saying, “Social Security is the only lifetime, inflation-protected, guaranteed source of retirement income that most Americans will have. It is the foundation of retirement security that keeps millions of older Americans out of poverty and allows them to live independently. But Social Security also provides some measure of economic security for families who face a loss of income because of the disability or the death of a wage earner. We often do not think of Social Security as a family income protection plan—yet that is exactly what it is.”

Other witnesses testified on the importance of Social Security benefits and how it provides the middle class with economic security, especially women and minorities.

One day later, Larson convened a second hearing entitled, “Protecting and Improving Social Security: Benefit Enhancements.” The purpose of holding the hearings, said Larson, was to “shine a bright light on all of the proposals to secure Social Security that will help the American people.”

Democrats Unveil Fix for Social Security

Larson also used the subcommittee panel hearing as a bully pulpit to promote his legislation, H.R. 860, “The Social Security 2100 Act.” Specifically, the bill’s eight provisions expand benefits for 62 million Social Security beneficiaries. Larson’s bill would provide an across-the-board benefit increase for current and new beneficiaries that is the equivalent of 2 percent of the average benefit. It also calls for an improved cost-of-living adjustment (COLA), through adopting a CPI-E formula, that takes into account the true costs (include health care expenses) incurred by seniors and a stronger minimum benefit set at 25 percent above the poverty line, tied to their wage levels to ensure that the minimum benefit does not fall behind. Finally, the bill would ensure that any increase in benefits from the bill do not result in a reduction in SSI benefits or loss of eligibility for Medicaid or Children’s Health Insurance Program. Finally, 12 million Social Security recipients would receive a tax cut through the eliminating the tax on their benefits.

At this time, H.R. 860 has 203 House Democrats cosponsors (including Rhode Island Representatives David N. Cicilline and James R. Langevin). Passage of the legislation requires only a simple majority vote of 218 lawmakers. With 235 Democratic lawmakers sitting in this chamber, it is expected to pass.

But, with the Senate-controlled by Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his GOP caucus, it will be difficult for Senators Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) to see their companion measure make it reach the Senate floor for consideration.

Larson’s first two hearings are the first in a series of hearings on Protecting and Improving Social Security. One more hearing will be scheduled with the date to be determined. After these hearings, H.R. 860 will most likely be marked up by the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee and full Committee before it heads to the House floor for a vote.

Enhancing Social Security Benefits

Lead-off witness Max Richtman, president of the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), restated his aging advocacy group’s support for Larson’s Social Security bill, H.R. 860, which enhances the retirement programs benefits and ensures its long-term solvency.

“Since the program’s creation 84-years ago, Social Security has been – and is- and enormously successful program which is essential to the retirement of the vast majority of Americans. While [the] benefits are modest, Social Security is still the single largest source of income for retired American’s. To ensure the program’s continued success, it is vitally important that long-term solvency be restored, and that Social Security benefits be improved to meet the needs of all Americans,” says Richtman.

Social Security Advocates joined Richtman at the witness table, too.

Elizabeth Marafino, president of the Connecticut Alliance of Retired Americans (from Larson’s home state), stated that Social Security is important to older Connecticut residents, making this statement more personal by sharing how her maternal grandmother, mother of six and a widow at the age of fifty, was glad to receive her husband’s social security check because it literally kept her out of the poor house.

Marafino noted, “The traditional three-legged stool of pension, personal savings, and social security is deteriorating. The ‘pension’ leg of the stool has been disappearing, eroding retirement security and making Social Security even more important. Along with the high cost of prescription drugs putting pressure on seniors’ finances, (these factors make) the need to increase Social Security benefits urgent.”

Abigail Zapote, Director of Latinos for a Secure Retirement, testified that boosting Social Security benefits is crucial to the Latino population, whose average Social Security checks are lower than other Americans. “Latinos depend on Social Security more than other groups because they tend to have lower lifetime income, longer life expectancies, higher incidence of disability and larger families,” she said.

Enhancing benefits can help older women, too, testified Joan Entmacher, a Senior Fellow at the
National Academy of Social Insurance. “Social Security is the foundation of retirement security for most Americans, but it is especially important for women,” she says, noting that women rely more on their Social Security checks than men do, even though their Social Security benefits are lower. She pointed out that the average retirement benefit for women is only 80 percent of men, making women even more reliant on Social Security, she said.

“Adjusting the regular benefit formula to make it more progressive would increase benefits for all workers, but lower lifetime earners, including women and people of color, would receive the largest percentage increases,” says Entmacher. To boost retirement benefits, she calls for the creation of caregiver credits (the majority of caregivers are women) who take off from their jobs to care for family members.

Finally, Donna Butts, the Executive Director of Generations United, testified that Social Security was important for all generations. ““For more than 80 years Social Security has been the premier example of a policy designed to secure and insure the well-being of individuals and their families. “For many it makes the difference between putting food on the table and deciding whether grandma or junior eat tonight,” she says.

The Beginning of an Honest Policy Debate

According to a NCPSSM blog posted on March 15th, “Republicans on the subcommittee, now in the minority for the first time in 8 years, appeared to be less combative than in the past.”

“This was a richer dialogue about the philosophical differences about Social Security than we’ve had in a long time,” observed National Committee legislative director, Dan Adcock in the blog posting. “There was a quest to figure out what each side could live with,” he says.

Stay tuned.

H

Trump Spending Priorities Would Fray Social Safety Net Programs

Published in the Woonsocket Call on March 16, 2019

Last Monday, President Donald Trump released his proposed FY 2020 budget request to Congress. Lawmakers, who rejected many of these budgetary spending requests in the president’s previous two submitted budgets proposals, consider his latest to be “dead-on-arrival.”

But, Trump’s $4.7 trillion fiscal blueprint, outlined in the 150-page “Budget for a Better America,” gives us a clear picture of his spending priorities and policies he seeks to implement through executive orders and regulator changes.

Trump’s FY 2020 spending plan proposes funding increases for combating the opioid epidemic, improving veteran’s health care, fixing the nation’s crumbling infrastructure ($200 billion increase), even giving the Pentagon a 5 percent increase in spending exceeding what the military asked for. White House senior advisor Ivanka Trump successfully pushed for the FY 2020 budget to include $750 million to establish a paid parental leave program and a $1 billion one-time fund to provide childcare to under served populations.

Trump’s budget proposal makes a commitment of $291 million to eliminate the spread of HIV within a decade, it slashes the National Institutes of Health’s funding by 12 percent, and the budget for the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention by about 10 percent.

Trump does not back away from his controversial stance of building a wall, putting in an additional $8.6 trillion for the construction of a U.S. Mexico border barrier. Congress had earlier opposed his demand for $5.7 billion for the construction project.

Trump Budget Proposal Puts Senior’s Earned Benefits at Risk

In 2016, Presidential candidate Trump had pledged not to cut Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, but he does in his submitted FY 2020 budget proposal.

Trump calls for a 5 percent cut in non-defense federal agencies, including a whopping $ 1.5 trillion in Medicaid over 10 years. The budget plan instead allocates $1.2 trillion to create “market-based health care grants,” (a.k.a block grants) for states that would start in 2021. This gives states the power to set their own rules for this program.

Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act (ACA) would be eliminated by Trump’s FY 2020 budget proposal by ending ACA’s protections for people with pre-existing conditions and causing millions of people to join the ranks of the uninsured. About 15 million more Americans have joined Medicaid since the ACA expansion was enacted.

Trump’s budget proposal also cuts Medicare by $845 billion over the next decade by cutting payments to hospitals and physicians, rooting out fraud and abuse, and by lowering prescription drug costs.

Meanwhile, the Social Security Disability Insurance program takes a huge budgetary cut of $25 billion and the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) operating budget is slashed by 1 percent, at a time when the agency is working hard to ratchet up its customer service provide to SSA beneficiaries.

Trump’s budget proposal would cut $220 billion from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), popularly referred to as the food stamp program. The program currently serves 39 million people. Under this budget, beneficiaries would be required to be employed for 20 hours a week to be eligible for assistance and replacing the EBT-debit card used to purchase groceries with the delivery of a “Harvest Box” filled with non-perishable foods like cereal and pasta, canned goods and surplus dairy products.

Housing and Urban Development’s 202 housing program for seniors and people with disabilities takes a $36 million hit, says long-time aging advocate Bill Benson, principal of Washington, D.C.-based Health Benefits ABC, in the March 15th issue of Aging Policy and Public Health News.

According to Benson, several Older Americans Act programs including the Family Caregiver Support program would be cut in Trump’s budget proposal. The Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program would be cut by $1 million. Elder Justice Programs would also be cut under the President’s budget including a $2 million cut to the Elder Justice Initiative at Administration for Community Living.

” Cruelest of all [budgetary cuts] is the proposed out-right elimination of the Social Services Block Grant (SSBG) which is the only source of sustained federal funding to states for Adult Protective Services (APS),” says Benson. Some 37 states use SSBGs to support their APS programs. SSBG is also used by states for a number of other services benefiting older adults including home-delivered meals and case management.

Shortchanging Seniors

Max Richtman, President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) warns that Trump’s budget proposal shortchanges seniors. “In combination with 2017’s tax cuts for the wealthy and the administration’s failure to allow Medicare to negotiate with Big Pharma, the Trump budget shows that his administration is not plugged into the realities of being elderly in America,” he says.

Richtman says that Trump’s budget plan also proposes to eliminate federal grants that help pay for programs under the Older Americans Act, such as Meals on Wheels and home heating assistance for the elderly poor.”

According to Richtman, the 116th Congress gives seniors hope with introduced legislation that would boost Social Security benefits and expand Medicare coverage to include dental, hearing and vision services, changes that an overwhelming majority of Americans support. He calls on Congress to “quickly reject this callous budget proposal — and take decisive action to enhance the well-being of older Americans.

Robert Greenstein, president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, sees Trump’s newly released budget proposal as very troubling, too. “It sharply cuts funding in the part of the budget that invests in future economic growth through education and training, scientific research, infrastructure, and the like,” he says.

“It reverses progress in making affordable health care available to people who don’t have employer coverage or can’t afford private coverage. It cuts basic assistance substantially for families, children, and elderly and disabled people who are in need and struggle to get by. And, it doubles down on policies that take away health care, food, and housing when adults aren’t able to meet a work requirement,” says Greenstein.
“Despite bemoaning deficits, it calls for making the costly 2017 tax cuts — which largely benefit those who already have high incomes and wealth — permanent,” he adds.

Richtman believes that Trump’s 2020 spending proposal serves as a warning of what the administration would do if it were not for the firewall known as the Democratic-led House of Representatives. “These draconian ideas – though rejected by voters in the 2018 mid-terms – remain in the conservative political bloodstream, requiring continued advocacy on the part of seniors and their champions in Congress,” he says.

The release of Trump’s FY 2020 budget program begins the Democratic party’s efforts to retake the White House and Senate in the 2020 presidential election, just over 598 days away. By making major cuts in Social Security and Medicare and turning Medicaid into a state block grant program, Trump is giving Democratic challengers in the 2020 presidential election fodder to create politically-charged themes for ads to turn senior voters against him for seeking cuts in these popular domestic programs.

Herb Weiss, LRI’12, is a Pawtucket writer covering aging, healthcare, and medical issues. To purchase Taking Charge: Collected Stories on Aging Boldly, a collection of 79 of his weekly commentaries, go to herbweiss.com.