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Robert Reich's Petition to President Obama: Don't Hurt Seniors With a Chained CPI Benefit Cut to Social Security

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Co-authored by Jonathan Stone

The latest entry into the political action petition derby is none other than Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton and current Professor of Public Policy at the University of California - Berkeley. Professor Reich has entered activist territory by creating a petition that urges the president to drop the Consumer Price Index ("CPI") adjustment to Social Security benefits that would have a severe, negative impact on many of the neediest among us.

Reich is concerned that this measure may be implemented in the upcoming budget, and his petition not only asks the president to drop this terrible idea, but also includes some sensible proposals that would further strengthen the Social Security program going forward. These include raising the cap on earnings from $113,700 to $200,000 and above, and a one percent raise in the payroll tax rate, a rate which, according to Professor Reich, has not changed in over 20 years.

Social Security is a highly successful program and a signature achievement of the Democratic Party and FDR's New Deal, a glowing success story that has kept millions out of sliding into poverty for almost 80 years. It also happens to be self-funded, with a $2.7 trillion surplus, and it should not be included in any discussions of benefit cuts. The truth is, most Republicans and Democrats are against any cuts to this program.

On the same day the Reich petition hit inboxes around the country, The New York Times published a story about the president's budget proposal that would indeed push the "Chained CPI" and cut $112 billion in Social Security benefits. The outcry came immediately from the Progressive community, both inside and outside of .:.

Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairs Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ 7) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN 5) reminded the president that the majority of Democrats in the House are on record opposing any cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, adding that "...cutting benefits is unpopular, unwise and unworkable."

Jim Dean, Chair of Democracy for America, responded with a no-nonsense warning that they "...will fight every step of the way" cuts to these three programs.

Stephanie Taylor, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, made one of the strongest statements, saying that "...any congressional Democrat who votes for such a plan should be ready for a primary challenge."

And Executive Director Anna Galland of moveon.org also offered a blistering statement that "...moveon's eight million members will not stand by and watch a Democratic president chip away at one of the most successful programs of all time. Every member of congress, Democrat or Republican, who votes for this proposal should expect to be held accountable."

This may be that tipping point that brings the Progressive wing of the Democratic party together in a common cause. So many Progressives worked so hard to elect and re-elect Barack Obama as our president, and now they are being smacked down with this outrageous proposal that makes Mr. Obama the one and only American president to ever propose such cuts to Social Security. FDR must be rolling in his grave. This is absolutely not the legacy Mr. Obama wants to leave behind, should this measure go through. Reich has long been a savvy player on the political scene, and he sees this petition as a worthwhile way to move the president to do the right thing and press for withdrawal of the CPI from consideration, being aided by the very people who would be impacted by such a draconian measure, including, I'm sure, the two-thirds of Social Security recipients who receive 50 percent of their income from this program, according to a tweet from Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) quoted on This Week Sunday.

There are several good, commonsense proposals out there for dealing with the budget crisis, offered by the likes of Senator Sanders and the CPC. It is interesting that Mr. Reich felt he had to go the petition route, rather than to simply pick up the phone and call the White House and meet with the president. Certainly he, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, Dean Baker and other leading economists must have some ideas to offer on the budget and other pressing matters facing our nation, and since the president and his supporters have made a point of publicly soliciting creative ideas and thinkers, why hasn't he sought their advice? Obviously, Mr. Reich understands the need to garner support from large numbers of people to have any effect on politics in Washington, and so he has joined in on what is becoming a significant political tool: the use of the petition, which has had recent successes such as pressing the president to move climate change to the forefront in his SOTU, immigration reform, the passage of the VAWA and the national outcry against assault weapons after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn. Petitions helped to move these issues to the national stage, and are a great way to engage the public on issues that matter and bring them into the political process. We are all in this together, after all, and an online petition can reach millions in the blink of an eye.

The use of petitions has also recently been working the other way around, with members of Congress sending out their own petitions to their constituents and beyond, seeking support on an issue to move their colleagues. Representatives Carolyn Maloney, John Conyers and Alan Grayson, and Senators Bernie Sanders, Dianne Feinstein, Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, Mary Landrieu and Tom Udall -- among others -- have generated petitions on such important issues as gun control, Medicare, Social Security and Medicaid, Immigration, canceling the sequester, banks "too big to jail," marriage equality, consumer financial protections, passing an amendment to overturn the Citizens United decision, and more. Many members of Congress have also recently taken to blogging, and with this kind of real-time communication with a larger spectrum of the population than their own constituencies, partnerships are developing between the public and these Congress members to take on issues now in the forefront of the nation's consciousness -- a very good sign.

It is good to see the Progressive wing of the Democratic party stepping up and becoming more visible and vocal on issues that matter. The grassroots are being marshaled to place pressure on the president and Congress to act for the common good and the nation. If the president and Congress won't act, they must be made to act by massive pressure from People Power. Perhaps Bob Reich will inspire other notables to join in his efforts to move the public to political action. We already are seeing some big names making a difference, like Gabby Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly and their new organization dedicated to ending gun violence, and former Senator Russ Feingold and his Progressives United organization now circulating a new petition for New York State to vote for a Fair Elections bill to remove corrupt money from elections that can buy seats of power. New York City has one of the best campaign funding systems in the country with its four to one public funding match with small donations from individuals. If this succeeds on the state level, it could become a national template, and would be a feather in the cap of Gov. Cuomo if he decides to run for president in 2016. Certainly burnishing his credentials as a strong leader on the right side of the issue -- or is that the left side?

On Friday night on Bill Maher's Real Time on HBO, Bernie Sanders was on Bill's panel of guests, along with political commentator and HuffPost Live host Abby Huntsman and Conservative economist Steve Moore. The discussion focused on the political and economic issues facing the country and addressed what Bernie is doing to protect Social Security and veterans' benefits, two issues he has been championing in blogs and appearances on TV. Bernie is receiving significant airtime and exposure right now, reaching out to an engaged public and delivering truth instead of fiction. The next step could be a rally in front of the White House and Congress, led by Senator Sanders, Bob Reich and some of his academic/economist friends like Paul, Dean and Joe, along with others. Can you see this bunch waving signs at the White House emblazoned with truths like, "Austerity is the road to disaster," while from their bully pulpit delivering a sane, "must-do" agenda for our country? I can. Actually, I would join them.