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. 

Opposition Builds Against Elimination of Social Security’s Payroll Tax

Published in the Pawtucket Times on September 28, 2020

With the looming 2020 presidential elections, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) announces its first ever Presidential endorsement, throwing its support to the Joe Biden/Kamala Harris campaign. The Washington, DC-based aging advocacy group, founded by James Roosevelt, Jr., the son of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who is credited with founding Social Security, fears for the retirement program’s future survival under a second Trump term. NCPSSM’s endorsement breaks the National Committee’s 38-year tradition of steering clear of Presidential campaigns in order to focus its resources on House and Senate races.

NCPSSM support of Biden follows the endorsements of other aging advocacy groups including AARP, Social Security Works, Alliance for Retired Americans, Medicare for All, American Federation of Government Employees and National Treasury Employees Union.

“During the past four years, we’ve seen this president pay lip service to seniors’ needs while actively undermining their best interests, the latest example being his reckless pledge to terminate the payroll taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare,” says NCPSSM’s president and CEO Max Richtman. “As the pandemic has worsened, we have seen an abject failure to protect nursing home residents and workers, who represent 40 percent of all COVID deaths. Never in our organization’s history have we seen such a consistent level of threats to the health and retirement security of America’s seniors,” he added, noting that the most effective way to protect the solvency of Social Security is to elect Joe Biden as president,” he said.

Adds, James Roosevelt, Jr., Vice-Chairman of the National Committee’s advisory board, “By enacting Social Security, my grandfather, President Franklin Roosevelt, gave workers the promise of dignity and financial security in retirement. Thirty years later, President Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law, providing older Americans with affordable, accessible health insurance. There’s a reason Social Security and Medicare have been around for 85 and 55 years, respectively. Americans value and depend on them. My father and grandfather would be outraged that President Trump and his allies want to dismantle both programs. I am 100 percent behind the National Committee’s decision to endorse Joe Biden, the candidate who can be trusted to protect seniors’ earned benefits from any attempts to undermine or privatize them.”

Trump’s Changing Policy Positions on Social Security

On Oct. 4, 2016, at vice presidential debate at Longwood University, Democratic vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine noted that in 2000, Donald Trump wrote a chapter in a book, The America We Deserve, calling Social Security a” Ponzi scheme” [an investment fraud] and stating that “privatization [of the program] would be good for all of us. ”

One month before Trump formally announced his candidacy on June 16, 2015, with a campaign rally and speech at Trump Tower in New York City, he tweeted, “I am going to save Social Security without any cuts. I know where to get the money from. Nobody else does.”

As a presidential candidate, Trump continued calling for protecting Social Security, long regarded as one of the most successful and popular social programs ever enacted by Congress. During a June political rally in 2016, Trump claimed, “We’re going to save your Social Security without killing it like so many people want to do” and throughout the 2016 presidential campaign repeatedly promised “not to touch” seniors’ earned benefits and to “protect your Social Security and your Medicare.”

Once in the Oval Office, Trump’s views changed. Congress was forced to block his proposed budget cuts and rule changes that would hurt Social Security beneficiaries, says Richtman.

“Trump has betrayed older Americans through his bungled response to the COVID pandemic and by blatantly breaking his promises to protect senior’s cherished social insurance programs. He has proposed more than $1 trillion in cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He has vowed to eliminate the payroll taxes that fund seniors’ retirement and health benefits if re-elected to a second term. He has urged the Supreme Court to strike down the Affordable Care Act, which improved Medicare benefits and solvency. In short, the President has listened to advisors who want to dismantle the country’s most effective social safety net programs” says NCPSSM’s top official.

A Stark Warning

On August 8, Trump has signed an Executive Order, Deferring Payroll Tax Obligations in Light of the Ongoing COVID-19 Disaster, to authorize a payroll tax holiday/deferral to give American taxpayers extra cash as they deal with the coronavirus pandemic. The president’s action allows employers to stop deducting the 6.2 percent employee payroll contribution toward Social Security for the rest of the year.

An Aug. 28 IRS memo noted that employers who participate in the payroll tax holiday will then have to pay back the taxes starting in 2021. Simply put, more money will take out paychecks from Jan. 1 to April 30 in 2021 to repay the taxes owed.

Richtman warns, don’t count on payroll tax forgiveness. “Unless Congress passes legislation to address this, the workers will ow every cent of that payroll tax deferral in 2021, and employers would have to deduct more from their paychecks starting January to repay it,” her says.

NCPSSM, Democratic lawmakers, and Social Security advocacy groups don’t see Trump’s elimination of the Social Security payroll taxes as an effective economic stimulus especially to unemployed workers. This action could effectively defund the Social Security and Medicare programs could ultimately bankrupt these programs.

In the letter released on Sept. 23 , Nancy A. LeaMond, AARP’s Executive Vice President and Chief Advocacy and Engagement Officer said “As AARP raised in letters to Congress back in March and President Trump and Treasury Secretary Mnuchin in August, we believe suspending, reducing, or eliminating contributions to Social Security will interfere with the program’s long-term funding stream… This deferral, along with the President’s recent statements on the permanent elimination of the Social Security payroll tax contribution, are engendering uncertainty among older Americans and the general public about Social Security and its ability to pay promised benefits. As such, AARP supports the resolution of Congressional disapproval.”

Trump counters NCPSSM, AARP and others condemning his Executive Order. He claims that eliminating the Social Security tax would not impact the solvency of Social Security, because the money would be shifted from the government’s general fund. Both continuing his payroll tax cut and shifting funds would require Congressional action. That, also, would require an act of Congress.

With this first time political endorsement, NCPSSM hopes to see a Democratic administration take over the White House to strengthen and expand Social Security, not weaken it by eliminating the program’s payroll taxes. “After nearly four decades of fighting to protect American seniors, the National Committee has determined that many older Americans cannot afford – let alone survive – another four years of President Trump. By endorsing Joe Biden and Kamala Harris today, we will work tirelessly to help voters of all ages understand that Trump’s promises are empty. He offers seniors a one-way ticket to nowhere. Americans deserve a President who will protect and strengthen the federal government’s commitment to older Americans.”

This article was updated on Sept. 24.

Report: Congress Warned to Shore Up Social Security Reserves

Published in the Woonsocket Call on April 26, 2020

Each year, starting in 1941, the Social Security Board of Trustees has presented a required report on the financial status of the program to the Congress. Now amidst the world-wide coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic forcing the shuttering of the nation’s businesses triggering the worst economic downslide since the 1930s Great Depression, the Social Security Board of Trustees releases its 276-page 2020 annual with a warning that Social Security could deplete its trust funds reserves by 2035, if Congress does not act to increase the trust fund reserves. However, because of payroll taxes, revenue to the program would ensure that at least 79 percent of benefits would be paid after 2035 if Congress fails to address solvency.

During the last five weeks, about 24 million Americans have lost their jobs due to COVID-19 Pandemic. With fewer people paying payroll taxes, this will further reduce revenue to Social Security, the impact depending upon how length and severity of the economic downturn. During the pandemic, the number of Americans who pass away, become disabled or survivors will also affect the actuarial accounting of the trust fund’s finances.

“The projections in this year’s report do not reflect the potential effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Social Security program. Given the uncertainty associated with these impacts, the Trustees believe it is not possible to adjust estimates accurately at this time,” said Andrew Saul, Commissioner of Social Security. “The duration and severity of the pandemic will affect the estimates presented in this year’s report and the financial status of the program, particularly in the short term.” says Saul.

“Today’s report confirms that Social Security’s financing is strong in the near term, but it will not have enough to pay 100 percent of promised benefits in long term. The report underscores why it is so important that Congress take action now to prevent a 21 percent cut from occurring in 2035, by ensuring Social Security is fully funded and strengthened for today’s seniors and future generations, who will need it even more,” said Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT), House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee in a statement.

“As we face the COVID-19 pandemic, Social Security’s role is even more important than ever. During this volatile time of economic uncertainty, Social Security remains the one constant that all current and future beneficiaries can count on. It has never missed a payment. That’s why we must act now to expand and enhance Social Security with the Social Security 2100 Act,” states Larson. “His legislation will ensure Social Security remains solvent for the next 75 plus years, while expanding benefits. Moreover, the expansion of Social Security’s steady monthly payments would be an automatic boost to the economy,” he adds.

Gauging the Financial Health of Social Security

According to the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM), at the end of 2019, about 64 million people were receiving benefits: 48.2 million retired workers and their dependents; 6 million survivors of deceased workers; and 9.9 million disabled workers and their dependents. About 178 million workers had earnings covered by Social Security and paid payroll taxes in 2019.

By 2035, (which is the same as last year’s estimate) when today’s 51-year-olds reach the retirement age and today’s youngest retirees turn 78, retirees will face a 21-percent across-the board benefits cut (that could grow to 25 percent over time) if Congress does not make significant changes to revenue, benefits, or both to shore up the depleted trust fund.

This year’s report announces that Social Security has an accumulated surplus of approximately $2.9 trillion. It projects that, even if Congress took no action whatsoever, Social Security not only can pay all benefits and associated administrative costs until 2035, it is 91 percent funded for the next quarter century, 85 percent for the next half century, and 82 percent for the next three quarters of a century. At the end of the century, in 2095, Social Security is projected to cost just 5.86 percent of gross domestic product.

The newly released Trustees report notes that the Disability Insurance (DI) Trust Fund, which pays disability benefits, will be able to pay scheduled benefits until 2065, 13 years later than in last year’s report. At that time, the fund’s reserves will become depleted and continuing tax income will be sufficient to pay 92 percent of scheduled benefits.

As to the Hospital Insurance (HI) Trust Fund, which pays Medicare Part A inpatient hospital expenses, the Trustee’s report says that this program will be able to pay scheduled benefits until 2026, the same as reported last year. At that time, the fund’s reserves will become depleted and continuing total program income will be sufficient to pay 90 percent of total scheduled benefits.

Finally, the Trustee’s report noted that the Supplemental Medical Insurance (SMI) Trust Fund, consisting of Part B, which pays for physician and outpatient services, and Part D, which covers prescription drug benefits, is adequately financed into the indefinite future because current law provides financing from general revenues and beneficiary premiums each year to meet the next year’s expected costs. Due to these funding provisions, the rapid growth of SMI costs will place steadily increasing demands on both taxpayers and beneficiaries, says the Trustee’s report.

Social Security Advocates Weigh in

“Medicare and Social Security are more crucial than ever as Americans face the one-two punch of the coronavirus’s health and economic consequences, says AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins in a statement following the release of the Trustees report, noting that the security provided by Social Security’s guaranteed benefits and Medicare’s health coverage is indispensable.

“Today’s reports show that both programs remain strong. However, it is crucial for Congress to come together in a bipartisan way to address the long-term funding challenges to ensure individuals will get the benefits they have earned. One way to protect Medicare is to lower the cost of health care and prescription drug prices, suggests Jenkins.

“Social Security is strong. But its long-term fiscal health cannot be guaranteed if the White House and Congress continue to use the program’s financing structure for economic stimulus during the COVID-19 crisis,” says Max Richtman, NCPSSM’s President and CEO. “Those who would like to dismantle Social Security are using the pandemic to launch a stealth attack. A broad-based payroll tax cut, as the President has proposed, would interfere with Social Security’s traditional revenue stream while failing to deliver effective or equitable stimulus,” he warns.

According to Richtman, Social Security already provides more than $1.6 trillion in annual economic stimulus as seniors spend their benefits for essential goods and services in their communities. “Now is not the time – in fact, it is never the time – to tamper with a program that more than 40% of retirees rely upon for all of their income,” he says.

Richtman notes that the Trustees estimate that the Social Security cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for 2021 will be 2.3 percent. However, that projection does not reflect the impact of the pandemic on inflation, and the actual COLA for next year could be lower, he says.

“We do not know the extent of the pandemic’s impact on Social Security, but we do know that seniors need a boost in their benefits. Let’s strengthen the program now by eliminating the payroll tax wage cap and demanding the wealthy pay their fair share. That way, we can expand benefits and adopt a more accurate cost-of-living inflation formula for seniors,” suggests Richtman.

As for Medicare, says Richtman, the program’s financial future is relatively unchanged from last year’s report, but the impact of the pandemic is not reflected. “The Medicare Part A Trust Fund will become exhausted by 2026, after which the program still could pay 90 percent of benefits, if Congress does nothing to strengthen Medicare’s finances,” he adds.

Adds Richtman, the Trustees estimate that the Medicare Part B premium will rise to $153.30 per month in 2021, an $8.70 increase over last years.

Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works and the Chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, agrees with Jenkins and Richtman that the Trustee’s report shows Social Security will remain strong through the rest of the 21st century and beyond, notwithstanding current circumstances. “Though the exact impact of today’s pandemic and economic conditions will not be clear until next year’s report, Social Security’s strength will shine through next year, as well. Social Security is built to withstand today’s events,” says Altman.

Altman believes that Social Security is a solution and the program continues to pay benefits automatically on time, especially with retiree’s 401(k)s taking a hit because of the pandemic crisis. “It is past time to increase Social Security’s modest but vital benefits, while requiring the wealthy to pay their fair share,” she says.

Stimulating the Economy by Slashing Payroll Taxes

Congress has passed payroll tax cuts –in 2011 and 2012 – in an attempt to stimulate the economy during a downturn. The recently enacted $2.2 trillion economic stimulus legislation passed last month, called the CARES Act, does allow for employers to defer their payroll tax payments but does not actually cut the levies, which are used to fund Medicare and Social Security.

Now GOP lawmakers led by President Donald Trump are using the virus pandemic as an excuse to slash payroll contributions, Social Security’s dedicated funding. Cutting the Social Security payroll taxes would reduce the amount of money withheld from employee paychecks, increasing their take-home pay.

Using a payroll tax cut to provide a financial stimulus in an effort to forestall a recession caused by COVID-19 pandemic “undermines the earned benefit nature of the program,” warns Dan Adcock, NCPSSM’s Director of Government Relations & Policy.

“Social Security is an earned benefit fully funded by the contributions of workers throughout their working lives. A payroll tax cut suspension or deferral chips away at that fundamental idea, making it easier each time it is enacted to turn to it again to meet some future crisis, until the payroll tax is not just cut but is eliminated, undermining the program in this manner would help achieve the goals of opponents of Social Security including those who would privatize the program,” says Adcock.

Adcock says that NCPSSM opposes a Congressional effort to alter the payroll tax that reduces revenue flowing into the Social Security trust fund or undermines the “earned right” nature of the benefit. “We support the enactment of tax incentives – other than cutting, suspending or deferring the Social Security and Medicare payroll taxes – to encourage employers to keep their workers during this emergency,” he says.

Congressional lawmakers can extend the long-term solvency of the Social Security while improving earned benefits through passing legislation like Congressman John Larson’s H.R. 860, the Social Security 2100 Act, says Adcock. At press time, the House bill has over 208 cosponsors and its Social Security Subcommittee has held several hearings on the bill.

Several other bills to protect and expand Social Security benefits have also been introduced in both House and Senate chambers The presumptive Democratic nominee for President, former Vice President Joe Biden, has endorsed a Senate proposal sponsored by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) that would provide all Social Security beneficiaries with an extra $200/month during the coronavirus health crisis.

As to Medicare, lawmakers can take action to cut beneficiaries’ out of pocket costs and boost Medicare’s fiscal health by passing H.R. 3, The Lower Drug Costs Now Act — which would save the program some $400 billion in projected prescription drug costs by allowing the government to negotiate prices directly with Big Pharma.

Simply put, one sure method of ensuring the financial viability of Social Security is to require millionaires to pay their fair share of payroll taxes by removing or increasing the current income cap on payroll taxes, suggests Adcock.

Shoreing Up Social Security

With over 90 days until the upcoming 2020 Presidential elections, seniors might reach out to those running for Congress and the White House and call for the strengthening and expansion of Social Security. It’s time to protect the viability of the program for those currently receiving benefits and for the younger generations who follow.

View the 2020 Trustees Report at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/OACT/TR/2020/.

View an infographic about the program’s long-term financial outlook at http://www.socialsecurity.gov/policy/social-security-long-term-financial-outlook.html

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.