a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

Van Hollen, Geithner reassure on earned benefits — but just for now

Posted by Thomas Nephew on December 3rd, 2012

Ten days ago I wrote about this statement by my Congressman, Chris Van Hollen, to a Wall Street Journal symposium:

I think there are other things you can do — look, I’m open to a conversation about this. I think when it comes to things like Social Security, again, you’ve got to take a mixed approach. I mean if you look at Simpson-Bowles or other plans, again, they have a combination of additional revenue along with spending reform. — [Alan Murray, Wall Street Journal: But you’re willing to at least look at that?] — I’m willing to consider all these ideas as part of an overall plan. I don’t think we should jump to the solutions which simply … especially in Medicare, which simply transfer costs, and within Social Security, I think there are actually other ideas, some of which some of us discussed in the SuperCommittee, but unfortunately to no avail.

As ranking member of the House Budget Committee and a key Democratic Party functionary (e.g., ex-DCCC chairman), Van Hollen’s views on budget matters are a fair indication of the Democratic position on issues like these.  So I wrote Van Hollen’s office, laying out my concerns and then inquiring, about the the above quote,

My first question: doesn’t that amount to being open to a Social Security benefit cut?  (Perhaps via what I think are called “chained cost of living adjustments”, i.e., a way of decreasing the adjustment for inflation?)  If not, why not?

My second question: Rep. Van Hollen then says, “I don’t think we should jump to the solutions which simply … especially in Medicare, which simply transfer costs, and within Social Security, I think there are actually other ideas, some of which some of us discussed in the SuperCommittee, but unfortunately to no avail.”  What were those “other ideas”?

Late last week, I got an answer from Congressman Van Hollen’s press secretary Bridgett Frey, referring me to a Huffington Post article by Zach Carter, featuring the video embedded below in which Van Hollen said,

“With respect to Social Security, I agree with what the president has said and what [Rep.] Peter DeFazio said, Social Security is not part of the deficit and debt problem and we’re not going to raid Social Security in order to balance other parts of the budget. As the president has said you can deal with Social Security and try to strengthen it on its own terms but it should not be part of these other conversations.”

The video also shows a clip of Van Hollen refusing to go along with FOX News’ Martha Macallum’s suggestion to raise the Medicare eligibility age:

No.  There are much better ways of dealing with Medicare costs. Why wouldn’t people say, let’s look at ways where we can reduce the cost of Medicare without simply transferring rising health care costs?

Now both of those statements are great, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee is urging supporters to thank Rep. Van Hollen for saying so.

So I did — in person, at a Saturday night fundraiser/birthday party for our State Senator Jamie Raskin — thanking my representative both for his opposition to raising the Medicare eligibility age and for decoupling Social Security from the immediate ‘fiscal cliff’ negotiations.  I also asked about the ‘spending reforms’ Van Hollen had mentioned to the Wall Street Journal symposium — but unfortunately, all he had time to answer was that he felt Social Security would need to be addressed later.

How much later? I wondered, as Mr. Van Hollen headed off to the dais to praise our excellent State Senator.  While both Van Hollen’s statements are welcome, they don’t actually take Social Security off the table altogether, they simply postpone its consideration.  That may well be a win for now (in which case: thanks, for now), but it left my questions unanswered about what specific kinds of “spending reforms” Van Hollen is hinting he might support later on — and it doesn’t answer just how soon that might be.

As one might expect, Van Hollen is very much on the Obama White House’s wavelength in this.  On “This Week” the next day, Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner was also talking about a separate Social Security process.  After Geithner pointedly did not rule out the “chained CPI” approach to reducing Social Security benefits, Stephanoupolous probed:

STEPHANOPOULOS: So you’re even willing to consider new restrictions on Social Security, because people like —GEITHNER: No. I didn’t say that. Let me clarify that. Thank you for asking me that.

What the president is willing to do is work with Democrats and Republicans to strengthen Social Security for future generations. So Americans can approach retirement with dignity and with the confidence they can retire with a modest guaranteed benefit. But we think you have to do that in a separate process, so that our seniors aren’t — don’t face the concern that we’re somehow going to find savings in Social Security benefits to help reduce the other deficits.

STEPHANOPOULOS: So to be clear, that is one thing that is clearly off the table. Social Security is off the table in these negotiations.

GEITHNER: We are prepared to, in a separate process, look at how to strengthen Social Security, but not as part of a process to reduce the other deficits the country faces.

Translation: we’re going to “find savings in Social Security benefits” all right, just later on.  As the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare (NCPSSM) points out, the “chained CPI” mechanism Stephanopoulos refers to

will cut the COLA by 3% for workers retired for ten years and 6% for workers retired for twenty years. This translates to a benefit cut of $130 per year in Social Security benefits for a typical 65 year-old. By the time that senior reaches 95, the annual benefit cut will be almost $1,400. This COLA change would also take effect immediately, impacting retirees now and in the future.

The “fiscal cliff” fight will only be half the battle; Social Security advocates should brace themselves for a long 2013 making sure that Geithner’s “modest guaranteed benefits” are defined beyond recognition.   Meanwhile, NCPSSM is calling for Wednesday, December 5th to be a national “call in” day: “Our goal is to flood Congress with calls reminding them that Americans of all ages and political parties do not support cutting middle-class benefits to pay for deficit reduction.”

2 Responses to “Van Hollen, Geithner reassure on earned benefits — but just for now”

  1. Nell Says:

    Hm. I’ll call, but I refuse to accept the horribly limited terms of debate recommended by the NCPSSM.

    I don’t support cutting anything to “pay for deficit reduction”, because focusing on “deficit reduction” AT ALL during mass unemployment and an epidemic of foreclosures and household debt is a criminal abdication of government’s responsibility.

    I support cutting enormous chunks of the military and “Homeland Security” budgets to pay for direct job creation and debt relief.

  2. Thomas Nephew Says:

    You’re right. There’s always this tendency for everyone to circle the wagons (ok, not a great metaphor) around their own concerns and ignore the bigger picture. Yet a sustainably strong economy is the best defending and strengthening Social Security and other earned benefits and safety net programs.

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