Republican plans to cut Social Security draw determined fightback
Rep. Larson of Connecticut speaks out against GOP plans to cut Social Security | AFGE/Twitter

WASHINGTON—Republican renewal of party plans to cut Social Security and Medicare are drawing fire from both retirees and the union representing the agency’s workers, who say the GOP is short-staffing the Social Security Administration, too.

Both cuts—the benefit cuts threatened by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and the cuts in money needed to add more staff—were topics of days of lobbying by Government Employees (AFGE) SSA members, in D.C. for a special conference on its future, in the third week of June.

And the staffing cuts are a threat to recipients’ Social Security checks, too, one top AFGE Social Security local union leader told the crowd.

McCarthy told the Republican mouthpiece, Fox News, he would appoint a bipartisan commission to look at cutting the entire federal budget, not just the 11% share that now goes to what’s called “domestic discretionary programs”—everything from hiring air traffic controllers to testing for safe food and drugs to enforcing minimum wage and overtime pay laws.

“The president walled off all the others. The majority driver of the budget is mandatory spending. It’s Medicare, Social Security, interest on the debt,” McCarthy  said. “So you would seek…” the program’s reporter asked. Before she could utter the word “cuts,” McCarthy replied “Yeah.”

McCarthy’s statement drew the ire of both Richard Fiesta, executive director of the labor-backed Alliance for Retired Americans and of Everett Kelley, whose union, the Government Employees (AFGE) represents the Social Security Administration’s workers. Kelley spoke at a rain-soaked outdoor rally on June 21 with SSA workers in town to lobby lawmakers on the short-staffing.

“Social Security is such a vital program to millions of American families, but right now the Social Security workforce is at a 25-year low,” Kelley told the crowd. “Employees are overloaded, overworked and underpaid. And underappreciated.

“It used to be one of the best places to work in the federal government and now it is among the worst. Thousands of workers are expected to depart in coming years, and these are high-skilled workers who took years of training….The Social Security Administration cannot serve” the U.S. “without a quality and a qualified workforce. But the agency seems to be hostile to its workers.

“It’s up to Congress to end years of underfunding and provide the agency what it needs.”

Fiesta concentrated on McCarthy’s threat.

“The deal struck by President Biden means Social Security checks will arrive on schedule and Medicare will not be disrupted,” said Fiesta said after Biden and McCarthy reached their agreement to raise the federal debt limit through early 2025, leave Social Security and Medicare untouched, but cut all the other domestic programs, though not the billion-dollar Pentagon. It got an increase.

Can’t let down our guard

“However, we cannot let our guard down. Speaker McCarthy has made it clear changing and cutting our earned Social Security and Medicare benefits remains a priority for his party,” Fiesta warned. He repeated that alarm in two tweets:

“Republicans aren’t hiding that they want to slash Social Security and privatize Medicare anymore. They are prioritizing wealthy billionaires over seniors.

“We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again: House Republicans are coming for your benefits They’re even proposing a higher Social Security retirement age and Medicare privatization. #GOPPriorities”

Jessica LaPointe, president of AFGE Council 220—which represents field office workers, linked McCarthy’s threat and the short-staffing together.

“Due to over a decade of congressional underfunding, the union that represents a majority of SSA workers has called you here today to sound the alarm that the Social Security Administration is in a state of emergency. The fabric of America’s social safety net is deteriorated, and you and your loved ones and our nation’s most vulnerable are at risk of falling through,” she said.

In so many words, if half the SSA staff retires within the next several years—and AFGE polls show 53% intend to do so—there won’t be enough people to handle the phone calls, resolve disputes or even mail out the checks.

While McCarthy was not specific on the Republicans’ Social Security cuts, Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., top Democrat on the Republican-run House Social Security Subcommittee, added some details in a one-page fact sheet. He based his summary on recommendations from House Republican Study Committee, a bloc that includes around two-thirds of House Republicans.

The RSC’s recommendations include immediately raising the age at which future retirees can get full benefits from the current 66 years plus change to age 70, an effective 20% cut all by itself. They would also include 20 other separate cuts that would total 21% of payments a typical beneficiary could expect to draw. And the RSC “plans partial privatization” of Social Security, “which would end Social Security as we know it,” Larson said.

Republican President George W. Bush tried that in 2005, proposing to turn over Social Security’s income and assets to Wall Street to invest. That would have been bonanza for the financial class at the expense of uncertain income for millions of retirees and their families. Intense and widespread national opposition, led by organized labor, tanked Bush’s scheme.

“The #1 anti-poverty program is Social Security” for the elderly, their survivors, many surviving children and the disabled, Larson told the rained-upon crowd. “Social Security funding needs to be increased” for them, and for the workers “so they can coordinate care and benefits.”

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.