Renewed congressional Social Security Caucus expands to 140 members
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., (right) is leading a congressional caucus that vows to fight ongoing efforts by Republican Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan (left) to slash Social Security. | Carolyn Kaster (left), Charlie Neibergall/AP

WASHINGTON—Back home in Vermont – and everywhere else in the U.S. – Bernie Sanders says, voters are talking about the future of Social Security. But in Washington, the independent senator from the Green Mountain State adds, they aren’t – unless it’s Republicans scheming to cut it.

The congressional Social Security Caucus and its allies, including the labor-backed Alliance for Retired Americans and the Government Employees (AFGE), who represent the agency’s overworked workers, plan to end that silence in D.C.

On September 13, the lawmakers and their backers mobilized together to defend the system, and its benefits to all Americans, and to announce the renamed Expand Social Security Caucus now lists 158 lawmakers, including 18 senators. The solons, all Democrats, are eager to advance the cause. They hope to pick up some GOP backers.

That may be unlikely. One reason Sanders started the prior Social Security Caucus years ago is that then-House Budget Committee Paul Ryan, R-Wis., kept inserting demands into congressional budget blueprints to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits. Though lawmakers never carried out those threats, Ryan has continued to push cuts during his tenure as House Speaker.

So the lawmakers and their allies will take all this out on the campaign trail this fall.

“You hear that Paul Ryan?” the senator said, to cheers. “He says ‘Oh, my God, we increased the deficit by $1 trillion. We have to cut Social Security.’ We won’t let you.”

“And then we have a president who’s a pathological liar who goes to Montana and says the Democrats have to cut Social Security.” That’s wrong, too, speakers said.

“Over the last several years, the Republicans have talked about how big the cuts should be in Social Security,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., said. “But we now have the wind in our sails” after all Senate Democrats signed on to an expand-Social Security non-binding resolution several years ago. “We’re going to build on that.”

“We’re here to say ‘no,’ and we’re here to say ‘never cut Social Security,’” she declared. “We’re here to say ‘expand Social Security.’ It is truly a measure of the kind of people we are and the kind of country we want to be.”

The groups representing workers, women, Latinas, the disabled, paralyzed veterans, Social Security’s workers, and more, rallied to the system’s defense – and to the cause of expanding it.

“Our members are organized, energized and mobilized to help expand Social Security,” declared Alliance Executive Director Richard Fiesta, one of a parade of speakers from more than a dozen groups backing the retirement program’s expansion. “Older Americans had the largest percentage increase in filings for bankruptcy last year. That’s not what we want to see.”

Specifically, the lawmakers and their backers want to increase benefits for retired and working women, so that no female retiree would have to live in poverty. They also want to increase the minimum Social Security benefit and index it to a specific inflation measure that covers expenses – notably medical care costs – the elderly incur.

“In the 1930s, more than half of our seniors were living in poverty,” before the New Deal, including Social Security, helped end that, said Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., whose father-in-law, Rep. John Dingell Sr., D-Mich., helped write the Social Security law in 1935.

“They didn’t know where they were going to live or how they were going to eat,” she added. Now, Sanders noted, the poverty rate for the elderly is under 9 percent, though he said one-fifth still must get by only on Social Security benefits, which average $1,300 monthly.

The lawmakers and their backers also want to remove the tax penalty seniors now face if they keep working but also draw Social Security.

And, to pay for it all and to keep the system solvent, they want to eliminate the current $128,000 cap on yearly earned income subject to Social Security payroll taxes. “It’s absurd to have someone making $30 million a year paying the same as someone” making the lesser cap figure, Sanders said.

But the system has other problems besides the GOP threat of cuts in benefits. One backer, Witold Skwierczynski, president of the Council of Social Security Locals, an AFGE sector, says “our staffing is horrible.” As a result, thousands of seniors lose benefits they should be entitled to, he explained in an interview after the press conference.

“In 1980, we had 85,000 employees. Now we have under 60,000 and we’ve lost 9,000 just since 2010,” he elaborated. “Delays in reviews of claims for disability benefits now take 800 days. And the president’s proposed budget would cut another 2,000 people.”

Social Security’s response to those problems, which also include the elimination of call centers and other people to walk retirees through applications, is to have them go to the Internet. But Skwierczynski said the retirees face long and difficult forms there and often make errors that cost them money.

And trying to get someone on the phone during the middle of the working day is difficult and frustrating, again thanks to the budget cuts, he said. Even an experienced person, such as himself, has trouble getting through. “I called Social Security on their 800 (toll-free) number – and it took me an hour and a half on hold,” said Skwierczynski, who himself is over 65.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.