Congressional Liberals Mobilize to Keep Social Insurance Out of Shutdown Talks
Representative Keith Ellison and other members of Congressional Progressive Caucus rally outside the US Capitol
against cuts to social insurance programs on October 3, 2013. Photo by George Zornick.
We’ve seen this movie before: Republicans force a showdown in Congress over funding the government, the debt ceiling or, in the present case, both. Then a “grand bargain” is proposed to solve the impasse—one that includes serious reductions to social insurance programs.
That’s just how the GOP would like the current drama to play out. Wednesday, National Review’s Robert Costa reported that House Speaker John Boehner and Representative Paul Ryan are rallying nervous Republicans by telling them that while Obamacare may not end up getting defunded, GOP leadership is cooking up another big budget deal that includes cuts to the safety net so cherished by many conservative members. “It’s the return of the grand bargain,” one member told Costa. “Ryan is selling this to everybody; he’s getting back to his sweet spot,” said another.
In particular, Costa mentioned Chained CPI as one component of the emerging proposal. This, you may recall, is a cut to Social Security benefits dressed up as a ostensibly “more accurate” recalibration of the formula used to adjust benefits to inflation. (It’s not.)
Democrats, from the White House to Congress, are taking a hard line so far. President Obama reiterated this morning that he will not abide GOP hostage-taking, and wants a clean resolution to reopen the government and a clean increase of the debt ceiling. Senate majority leader Harry Reid and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi are on the same page.
But Obama also said he’s happy to engage in a broad budget deal once the stalemate is resolved, and Reid sent Boehner a letter on Wednesday pledging the same.
This has left some progressives a little nervous—a debt-ceiling increase with the promise of a grand bargain and a grand bargain that includes a debt-ceiling increase is a distinction without much difference, except the notable removal of some leverage from the GOP side. And President Obama has repeatedly proposed Chained CPI in the past, and it would clearly be in play once during any broad discussions of a deficit reduction package.
Thursday morning, more than twenty liberal members of the House gathered outside the US Capitol, along with a large group of retirees and other activists. The message was simple: they will not support cuts to Social Security or other safety net programs.
The press conference took on the air of a campaign event, with passionate speeches and colorful placards, and culminating in a “human chain” of members of Congress and retirees holding hands across the Capitol lawn and singing protest songs.
“Folks are scurrying around here, trying to figure out how to end the shutdown. And sometimes I’ve heard [Democrats] say ‘You know, maybe we should give them something.’” said Representative Keith Ellison, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. “Some folks say ‘We’ll give you Chained CPI.’”
“No way! No way!” Ellison shouted into the microphones. “Open up the government. Put a clean CR on. Stop this austerity…. The way we hang together here is we make sure nobody, but nobody, gets sold out in exchange for Republicans doing their job, which is funding the government.”
Many of the members, now veterans of repeated standoffs and grand bargain proposals, said they believe the real prize for the GOP is safety net cuts.
“There is a basic, basic attack going on in this country against so-called entitlements. That’s what this fight is all about. That’s what the budget fight is all about,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler. “This has got to be fought, and it’s shameful if any Democrats, no matter where he or she may be, buys into any of this.”
Their efforts are being bolstered by renewed pushes from outside advocacy groups. On Wednesday, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare released a study examining how much money Chained CPI might take away from seniors and people with disabilities—and also suck out of the economy. The study uses the Obama administration’s most recent proposal on Chained CPI, and found that it would reduce benefits nationwide by $23 billion by 2023. That translates to a loss of over $31 billion in economic output by that time.
The study also breaks down the benefit cuts each congressional district—and also projects what the economic cost would be. The idea is to use the numbers as a cudgel against wavering members.
For example, in the Maryland district of Representative Steny Hoyer, who did not take a position on Chained CPI when Obama proposed it in his budget this spring, the report shows that $38.3 million in benefits would be taken from his constituents by 2023. That translates to as much as $80.5 million in lost output in that district alone.
The relatively large number of progressive members present at the event was significant because any budget deal is almost certain to face a razor-thin vote, with a chunk of Republicans likely to vote against any sort of deal endorsed by the president. The votes represented at the rally will be needed. But the members said they will not be forthcoming, neither in the shutdown talks nor afterwards.
“I will oppose and I will urge my colleagues to oppose a switch to the Chained CPI,” said Representative Elijah Cummings. “We should not reduce the retirement income that our seniors, retired veterans, and public service have earned and deserved—for any reason whatsoever.”
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