Older Americans Month: great time to bring back House Aging Committee

Published in RINewsToday on May 9, 2022

On April 29, President Joe Biden proclaimed the month of May, Older Americans Month for 2022 to honor the nation’s 54.1 million Americans aged 65 and over “who contribute their time and wisdom to make our communities stronger, more informed, and better connected.”

“Older adults have always been a vital source of strength and resilience in America,” stated Biden in the proclamation.  During the pandemic, many seniors came out of retirement to serve their communities in health care and education roles, filling job vacancies in critical shortage areas. Moving forward, we must ensure that older Americans have the appropriate resources to maintain their independence and stay connected to their communities,” he said.

The proclamation also noted that the nation is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Older Americans Act Nutrition Program — the first federal program to support the well-being of older Americans through meal deliveries, nutrition services, educational programs, and counseling. This year is also the 10th anniversary of the nation’s National Plan to Address Alzheimer’s Disease and recommit to building upon this important work being done.

Biden recognizing this month in honor of seniors follows the footsteps of 11 presidents, beginning with President John F. Kennedy in 1963, when only 17 million Americans had reached their 65thbirthday. At that time,  about a third of America’s seniors lived in poverty and there were only a few federal programs to meet their needs. A meeting in April 1963 between Kennedy and the National Council of Senior Citizens led to designating May as “Senior Citizens Month,” later renamed “Older Americans Month.”

Over the years, OAM is a time the nation acknowledges the contributions of past and current older persons to our country, in particular those who defended our country. Communities across the nation pay tribute at ceremonies, events, and fairs, or in other ways to older persons in their communities.  

OAM – a great time to bring back the House Aging Committee

As the nation celebrates OAM, an eblast to over 90,000 seniors by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) urged these older voters to call their congressmen to request them to cosponsor Rhode Island Congressman David Cicilline’s H. Res. 583, to reestablish the House Select Committee on Aging (HSCoA). “It couldn’t be a better time to highlight the urgent need to reinstate this investigative committee which would help restore Congressional focus on key policy issues [Social Security, Medicare, housing, prescription drugs, and long-term care] impacting the nation’s seniors says the Benefits Watch newsletter.   

“Today, with seniors representing a growing portion of the U.S. population and several federal programs that seniors rely on at an inflection point, there is an increasing need for a House committee that advocates for older Americans,” says NCPSM’s email, noting that’s why the Washington, DC-based advocacy group has signed onto the Leadership Council on Aging Organization’s (LCAO) letter calling on the House to pass H. Res. 583. 

“While there are other committees with jurisdiction over seniors’ programs, there is no single committee dedicated to keeping an eye on the big picture for seniors.  Fortunately, the Senate Special Committee on Aging has continued to operate in the absence of a House counterpart,” notes NCPSSM’s email, noting that “seniors would benefit from a reinstated and robust HSCoA, whose sole mission would be to look out for older American’s needs.

National Aging Groups, former Pepper staffer weighs in

“Older Americans month would be the perfect time to bring back the Aging Committee,” says Bob Weiner, former Chief of Staff under chairman Claude Pepper of the House Select Committee on Aging. “It’s sorely missing now. With Pepper’s legacy as the guide, pandemic deaths, nursing homes, home health care, Social Security, and Medicare would be improved by the sunlight of oversight. Seniors are now vulnerable and threatened by what could happen and having the Aging Committee back would reinstate the wall of protection that Pepper gave them,” he says. 

“The LCAO supports the establishment of HSCoA to provide an important forum for discussion, debate and exploration of issues impacting an aging society,” says Katie Smith Sloan, chair of the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations (LCAO), a coalition of 69 Washington, DC-based aging organizations. “Addressing the needs of older adults and families, which are increasingly prevalent with our population shifts, now, as we celebrate Older Americans Month, is appropriate – and urgent,” says Sloan. LCAO sent a letter to members of Congress on March 4, 2022, urging them to cosponsor H. Res. 583. 

“Passing H Res 583 in May to coincide with it being Older Americans month would make eminent policy and political sense.  It is an investment in having a stronger and dedicated advocacy voice for older adults in the House which has been missing for almost 20 years,” says Robert B. Blancato, National Coordinator of the Elder Justice Coalition, who was the longest serving staff person on the original House Aging Committee, from 1977 to 1993.

“As our country’s older adult population continues to grow each day, so does the urgency with which we need to pursue effective solutions to myriad aging issues,” says Erika Kelly, Chief Membership and Advocacy Officer of Meals on Wheels America. “To see the House pass this resolution to reestablish the HSCoA during Older Americans Month would be a tremendous step forward,” she says.

“Older Americans Act programs, like Meals on Wheels, will undoubtedly face the lingering impact of the pandemic and other challenges for years to come. Having this HSCoA come [back] to life again, especially during this celebratory month, would provide critical leadership and attention when it’s needed most and make a difference in the lives of tens of millions of older adults,” says Kelly.

Finally, Cicilline, H. Res. 583’s sponsor and the NCPSSM tells us why it is important for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her Democratic leadership colleagues to support and bring H. Res. 583 to the House Rules Committee for a vote during Older Americans Month.

“With Older Americans Month upon us, this is an important moment to underscore how the pandemic has disproportionately impacted seniors. Now, with growing concerns about inflation, seniors on fixed incomes will bear the burden of the rising cost of prescription drugs, food, housing, and other essentials. A House Permanent Select Committee on Aging would help Congress focus on, study, and address the issues that affect seniors to make sure they can live the rest of their lives with dignity and security,” says Cicilline.

“When there was a HSCoA before it was abolished in 1995, the investigative House committee held hearings on aspects of the Older Americans Act leading up to the 1992 reauthorization of the law,” noted NCPSSM’s Dan Adcock, Director of Government Relations and Policy. “The findings of these hearings were helpful to the House Committee on Education and Labor which had legislative jurisdiction over the Older Americans Act.  The Subcommittee on Human Resources [now called the Civil Rights and Human Services Subcommittee] under the full Education and Labor Committee held several of its own hearings on the OAA, too – including field hearings held across the country — leading to the enactment of the 1992 reauthorization., he said. 

According to Adcock, during that period of time, there was significant communication between the House Aging Committee staff and the Ed and Labor Committee and Human Resources Subcommittee staff.  But the legislative language was written and marked up by the latter. “A reestablished HSCoA could play a similar role in the future, but the panel’s ability to have an impact on legislation drafted by the authorizing committees would depend on the cooperation between the respective committee chairs and staff and the degree of relevancy of the hearings held by a reconstituted House Aging Committee,” he says. 

Over 400 senior groups support H. Res. 583

While LCAO is a pretty diverse group of national aging organizations – each with their own policy priorities, the coalition of 69 members, representing over 100 million over 50, and 50 million over 65 came together to endorse and affirm their support of Cicilline’s resolution.  

Ms. Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works and Chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, strongly supports the passage of H. Res. 583 and that her coalition of 350 national and state organizations representing 50 million Americans endorses Rep. Cicilline’s resolution.  

As we celebrate OAM, it is key to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) and Whip James Clyburn (D-SC) to join Cicilline along with Congresswomen Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Doris Matsui (D-CA), cochairs of the Task Force on Aging and Family and 43 cosponsors of H. Res 583, giving the green light to the House Rules committee to vote, and if approved send it quickly to the floor.

H. Res. 583 does not require Senate consideration and only requires a House Rules and floor vote for passage.  Passing the reestablishment of an investigative committee in the House would send a powerful message to older Americans that Congress following in Pepper’s footsteps will again get serious in addressing aging issues. 

As mentioned in previous commentaries, bringing back the HSCoA is a winning federal policy to positive impact America’s seniors and this group.  It’s the  right thing to do especially at a time when seniors have been a disproportionately impacted by the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.    

Over 450 national and state aging organizations representing conservatively over 150 million seniors, support the enactment of H. Res. 583. That’s a great reason for the lower chamber to strongly support.

To see the LCAO’s letter sent to Congress on March 4, 2022, endorsing H. Res. 583, go to https://www.lcao.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/03/House-Aging-Committee-LCAO-Letter-3-4-22.pdf.

For a historical background of the HSCoA and details about H. Res. 583, go to https://rinewstoday.com/congressman-cicilline-poised-for-legacy-as-next-fiery-advocatsie-on-aging/.

For details about Congressman Claude Pepper (D-FL) Congressman, during his six-year serving as chair of the HSCoA, go to https://rinewstoday.com/congressman-cicilline-poised-for-legacy-as-next-fiery-advocate-on-aging/.

A call to Congress to strengthen, expand Social Security & Medicare 

Published in Rhode Island News Today on September 6, 2021

The 2021 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI)) and the Social Security Disability trust fund (SSDI), released last week, gives Congress this stark warning: the Social Security Trust fund is heading toward insolvency in 13 years while SSDI will see its reserve funds depleted in 2057, eight years sooner than last year’s estimate. As a whole, combined, the two Social Security trust fund reserves will be depleted in 2034, a year earlier than estimated made in last year’s Trustee report.

However, there is good news. This year’s report notes that there is more than enough time for lawmakers to make up shortfalls by immediately shoring up the ailing Social Security Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI) trust fund and the Social Security Disability trust fund (SSDI) by Congress increasing revenues or cutting costs to these programs.

“The theoretical combined trust funds will exhaust their reserves by 2034, when today’s 54-year-olds reach the full retirement age and today’s youngest retirees turn 75. Upon insolvency, all beneficiaries will face a 22% across-the-board benefit cut,” says a detailed analysis released by the Washington, DC-based Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget (CRFB), a non-partisan, nonprofit organization committee that addresses federal budget and fiscal issues.

According to this year’s Medicare Trustee’s report, there was no change from last year’s projections that noted Medicare Hospital Insurance trust funds would be deleted in 2026. If this occurs, physicians, acute care facilities and nursing homes would not receive their full compensation of the program (only 91% of scheduled payments), pushing the uncompensated costs on the patients to pay.

Total Medicare expenditures are projected to increase in the future at a faster pace than both total workers’ earnings and the overall economy, says the newly released Medicare Trustee report.

In light of the projected insolvency of Social Security, this year’s Trustee’s report notes that beneficiaries may receive an estimated 3.1% cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for benefits in 2021, the highest COLA in a decade. This large increase was triggered by higher inflation rates caused by the ongoing pandemic.

Beltway Insiders Respond

“The Trustees’ projections in this year’s report include the best estimates of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the Social Security program,” said Kilolo Kijakazi, Acting Commissioner of Social Security. “The pandemic and its economic impact have had an effect on Social Security’s Trust Funds, and the future course of the pandemic is still uncertain. Yet, Social Security will continue to play a critical role in the lives of 65 million beneficiaries and 176 million workers and their families during 2021.”

“The Trustees Report confirms that Social Security’s financing is strong in the near-term yet underscores why it is so important that Congress take action now to prevent 22% in cuts across the board on all benefits in 2034,” says House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman John B. Larson (D-CT) in a released statement. “With the loss of traditional pensions, rising health care costs, and many people unable to save enough for retirement, there is a growing retirement crisis. 65 million Americans currently rely on Social Security benefits, yet millions are suffering and can’t make ends meet, adds Larson.

Furthermore, the Trustees Report shows that this year the cost of paying out benefits will exceed the income from the Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA) payments,” states Larson.

The released 2021Trustee reports on the financial solvency of Medicare and Social Security trust funds once again identify unsustainable benefit promises in Medicare and Social Security programs, stated senator Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) said in a released statement.

 “The Hospital Insurance trust fund [Medicare] is projected to be exhausted around 2026; there are $60 trillion of unfunded liabilities in Social Security programs; and unfunded liabilities increased by trillions of dollars over the last year alone,” adds Crapo.

Crapo urges Congress and the White House to “work closely together with a sense of urgency to address the challenges detailed in the Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports. However, “most Democrats want only to expand benefit promises further without generating sustainable trust fund solvency,” he said.

Seniors Depend on Social Security on Most of Their Income

“There is no need to sound the alarm, but now is the time to address Social Security’s long-term solvency – and provide an overdue boost in benefits. Phone calls and emails to Congress are definitely warranted at this critical juncture,” says Max Richtman, President and CEO of the Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, responding to the Social Security Trustee Report released August 31.

According to Richtman, Social Security has never missed a benefit payment in its 86-year history, but remains strong. Even if no Congressional action is taken and the Trust fund becomes deleted, Social Security could still pay 79% of the benefits with revenue coming from regular worker’s payroll contributions. “But that poses a huge financial risk for the millions of retirees who depend on Social Security for most if not all of their income.  It also raises a serious political risk for members of Congress who fail to boost the program’s finances so that the trust fund remains solvent beyond 2034,” he says. 

Living on an average monthly benefit of $1,540 is tough to do, says Richtman, as retirement savings dwindle, pensions disappear and the soaring cost of senior housing and medical care.  

Nancy Altman, President of Social Security Works (SSW) and chair of the Strengthen Social Security Coalition, agrees with Richtman’s assessment of Social Security’s fiscal solvency and impact on the retiree’s income. “Today’s report shows that Social Security remains strong and continues to work well, despite the once-in-a-century pandemic. That this year’s projections are so similar to last year’s proves once again that our Social Security system is built to withstand times of crisis, providing a source of certainty in uncertain times,” she says.

“We don’t have a Social Security crisis, but we do have a retirement income crisis — made worse by the pandemic, which, among other economic impacts, forced millions of workers to retire earlier than planned. The solution is to expand Social Security, as President Joe Biden has promised to do,” suggests Altman.

According to SSW, “about one out of two married senior beneficiaries and seven out of 10 unmarried senior beneficiaries and almost one out of tow unmarried beneficiaries rely on Social Security for virtually all their income.”

Mustering the Political Will 

Richtman calls for Congress to closely look at Congressman John Larson (D-CT) legislation to fix and expand the nation’s ailing Social Security program. “For over six years, Congressman John Larson has been driving efforts to strengthen Social Security by adjusting the payroll wage cap so that high income earners begin paying their fair share,” he notes.

Larson has also proposed an across-the-board boost for all retirees, enhanced benefits for the most vulnerable seniors, and a more accurate formula for calculating annual cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) so that benefits truly keep pace with inflation, says Richtman, noting that the Connecticut Congressman’s  proposals also align with President Biden’s initiatives to strengthen and expand Social Security. 

“Of course, the default response from conservatives will be to suggest, indirectly or otherwise that Social Security benefits must be cut to address the program’s funding shortfall,” states Richtman said. “Some will insist that Social Security be privatized, which would gamble workers’ hard-earned retirement benefits on Wall Street. Meanwhile, conservatives likely will oppose common sense revenue-side measures that would actually boost benefits, including Rep. Larson’s proposed adjustment of the payroll wage cap.”  For Congress to act to advance legislation to strengthen and expand Social Security, voters must put political pressure on their elected officials “to muster the political will to get it done,” says Richtman.

A Final Note…

It’s better to make changes to ensure Social Security’s solvency now, rather than waiting, suggests CRFB, a delay only adds more costs to fixing trust fund shortfalls in a timely fashion.“ Acting now allows more policy options, lets policymakers phase in changes more gradually, and provides more time for workers to adjust their work and savings, if necessary,” the fiscal advocacy group says.

The clock is ticking. There are almost 4,500 days until the project insolvency of the Social Security trust fund. It is now time for Congress to find viable, bipartisan solutions to fixing Social Security and Medicare, once and for all. 

The 276-page 2021 Social Security Trust Fund report is available by going to https://www.ssa.gov/oact/TR/2021/tr2021.pdf.

Can Trump Politically Survive Cutting Social Security’s Payroll Tax?

Published in the Pawtucket Times on May 11, 2020

As Congress begins to hammer out the fifth coronavirus stimulus package to continue its efforts to jump start the nation’s economy, President Donald Trump warns he will not sign any bill that does not include a payroll tax cut.

“We’re not doing anything without a payroll tax cut,” Trump bluntly warns at a two-hour “virtual town hall” event hosted by Fox News, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. According to Nielson Media Research, nearly 4 million viewers tuned into this the town hall, entitled “America Together: Returning to Work,” aired on May 3, that focused on COVID-19 and the reopening of the nation’s economy.

Aging advocates and Democratic lawmakers charge that trump is 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.

Payroll Tax Cuts: Reducing Social Security’s Financial Stability

The Washington, DC-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) quickly released a statement warning that Trump’s efforts to remove the payroll tax by a provision in the next COVID-19 stimulus package will ensure the fiscal insolvency of Social Security, threatening the program’s ability to continue paying benefits to 64 million Americans who depend on those benefits to financially survive their retirement years.

“President Trump set off alarm bells for America’s seniors and their advocates by insisting once again on eliminating Social Security payroll taxes – both employer and worker contributions. The President even threatened to hold hostage the next phase of badly-needed Coronavirus relief legislation unless he gets his reckless payroll tax cuts. Make no mistake: by pushing to cut off the program’s funding stream, President Trump is taking the first step toward dismantling Social Security, says NCPSSM’s president and CEO, Max Richtman in a statement.
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“While we agree that providing tax relief to middle class Americans is an important consideration as we respond to Coronavirus pandemic, we do not believe that cutting, eliminating or deferring the Social Security payroll tax is an appropriate way to accomplish this goal, says Richtman.

In an April 24 correspondence to Trump, NCPSSM’s top official reminded the president that Social Security is an earned benefit fully funded by the contributions of workers throughout their working lives. He pointed out that a payroll tax cut is an assault on that fundamental idea, equally true even if the funds are replaced by general revenues from the Treasury.

In his correspondence, Richtman suggests that a payroll tax cut should not be viewed as an economic stimulus because it leaves out large segments of the population. “Large numbers of federal, state and local government workers do not pay into Social Security, and therefore would not benefit from the payroll tax cut. Ironically, the senior population, those who are directly affected by taking their money from the trust fund, will not see a single dime of relief since most of them are not working,” he note.

Richtman also identified alternatives to the payroll tax cut that he believes would be more targeted and effective to fire up an economy slowed by the spread of the coronavirus. “Another one-time payment by the federal government can put money in the hands of taxpayers quickly, and the Making Work Pay Tax Credit can be passed by Congress rapidly as can an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit. Spending in other programs that directly help those who lose employment as a result of the virus can be the most targeted relief of all,” he suggests.

“In light of the recent Social Security Trustees report, it is clear that Social Security needs more revenue – not less,” observes Richtman, who served as a former staff director of the Senate Special Aging Committee.
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“The President’s campaign to eliminate payroll taxes is a violation of his patently false promises to seniors ‘not to touch’ Social Security. This proposal goes way beyond ‘touching.’ Choking off Social Security’s funding stream is an existential threat to seniors’ earned benefits,” charges Richtman.

Nancy Altman, president of Social Security Works, came out swinging when she heard Trump stating that he will block all coronavirus response measures unless they include cuts to the payroll tax, whose revenue is dedicated to Social Security.

In a statement, Altman stated: “More than 30 million Americans are newly unemployed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Their paychecks are gone, but their rent, utility, grocery bills and other expenses still must be paid. Seniors in nursing homes are dying at alarming rates. Hospitals are desperate, as are state and local governments.”

Dead on Arrival on Capitol Hill????

“Trump made it clear weeks ago that his obsession with cutting payroll contributions has nothing to do with the coronavirus or the resulting economic fallout,” says Altman, noting that he said he’d like a “permanent” reduction in payroll contributions, and that he’d support it “regardless” of the current situation. He has also said he wants to cut Social Security once he is re-elected, she added.

While Democratic lawmakers push for strengthening and expanding the Social Security Program, GOP lawmakers are signaling their opposition and aversion to risking political capital on supporting Trump’s efforts to cut the payroll tax. Trump’s calls for this tax policy change are falling on deaf ears. According to Politico, when asked if he supports Trump’s ultimatum that a payroll tax must be placed in the next stimulus package, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), the Senate Finance Committee chair, responded, “Right now, not much.”

“I’m going to give it due consideration, if I can see a strong group of people who think it’s the right thing to do,” added Grassley, whose Senate committee oversees federal tax policy, in the May 5 Politico article. “The president proposes, we dispose,” he quips.

Although Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnel (R-Kentucky) is not ruling out payroll tax cuts, he is focusing his efforts to put liability protections provisions in the next major stimulus package to protect businesses against virus-related lawsuits from workers, stockholders, and consumers.

Stepping on the “Third Rail”

Political insiders consider Social Security to be the “third rail of a nations politics.” Wikipedia states that this metaphor comes from the high-voltage third rail in some electric railway systems. Stepping on it usually results in electrocution and the use of the term in the political arena refers to “political death.”

At an Iowa campaign rally in 2016, Republican presidential candidate Trump boasted that his loyal voter base would still standby him even if he shot someone in the middle of 5th Avenue in New York City. Many political pundits responded to his comment by rolling their eyes and chuckling.
Can Trump politically survive, keeping his loyal voter base, if he steps on the “third rail” by continuing his efforts to cut Social Security’s payroll taxes, pushing the program toward fiscal insolvency. When the dust settles after the upcoming November 2020 elections, we’ll see if the older voters consider Social Security an untouchable program.