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The GOP's Social Security Assault Has a Human Cost

01/08/2015 10:32 am ET | Updated Mar 10, 2015
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It is striking that on their first day -- their very first day! -- congressional Republicans moved against Social Security's disability insurance fund, before some of them had even found the restrooms or put out their family photos.

As Jerry Seinfeld might ask, "Who does that?"

Although the move was somewhat secretive, a number of very smart people caught it and brought it to the public's attention. "The New Republican Attack on Social Security Starts Now!" Nancy Altman and Eric Kingson wrote in The Huffington Post. "House Rule Could Hurt Vulnerable Disability Beneficiaries," explained Kathy Ruffing at the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. "Republican Congress Launches With Back-Door Attack On Social Security Benefits," wrote Alan Pyke of Think Progress.

"Well," said Michael Hiltzik of the Los Angeles Times, "that didn't take long."

No, indeed. And it's worth remembering that this GOP move doesn't just hurt an abstract entity called "Social Security." It hurts people -- living, breathing human beings.

This particular move targeted the disabled. Here's how: The overall Social Security fund is well-funded for the next two decades or so (and easily remedied beyond that point), but the disability insurance trust fund needs a short-term cash infusion from the larger retirement account.

As Kathy Ruffing and Paul van de Water have pointed out, both Republican and Democratic Congresses have made this kind of fund-to-fund adjustment 11 times. But now, perhaps in an attempt to add to the false hysteria over Social Security's finances, they're refusing to make this routine correction. If it stands, disability insurance benefits for 11 million people -- benefits that are meager in the best of times -- will be cut by 20 percent next year.

This isn't the first time Republicans in Congress have targeted the disabled -- children, the elderly, and other Social Security beneficiaries. They have insisted on cutting the Social Security Administration's already lean budget, for example, even though it does not contribute to the overall Federal deficit. That has led to "invisible benefit cuts" for recipients who are unable to navigate the system or receive the proper assistance as a result.

As a result of these budget cuts, the waiting time for a disability benefit appeal has risen to more than a year -- 396 days -- and is rising each year. For someone who's unable to work, the suffering caused by that delay is incalculable.

It's also worth noting how mendacious the Republicans have been. The GOP won control of Congress in 2010, in part by promising to protect Social Security, as part of a sham promise they called the "Seniors' Bill of Rights." But true to form, they've returned time and time again to pushing Social Security cuts.

Their rhetoric is as shrill as their priorities are skewed. They insist that the disability program is riddled with fraud, despite evidence to the contrary. They claim that the program is "going broke," even though it has $2.8 trillion in its trust fund, can pay full benefits for the next two decades, and can be maintained for 75 years with relatively minor tweaks.

Why are they doing this? Undoubtedly, one reason is to please campaign contributors. Wealthy individuals, like conservative billionaire hedge-funder Pete Peterson, are committed to gutting the program. Many defense contractors and Wall Street firms are involved in the campaign to cut Social Security through a group called "Fix the Debt," despite the fact that Social Security doesn't contribute to the federal debt. (Ironically, all of these firms have benefited greatly from public expenditures.)

What's their motivation? Among other things, Social Security cuts would ensure that they're not asked to pay more in taxes.

But, though the GOP's support for these cuts is cynical, cynicism is only half the equation. The other lies in its radical ideology, an ideology which says that all government is bad. Never mind that fact that programs like Social Security are "of the people, by the people, and for the people": to the GOP, government is evil and the only "people" that matter are corporations.

It's true that in years past they've had a willing partner, at least for some Social Security cuts, in President Obama. The president even included the "chained CPI" benefit reduction in one of his annual budgets. How did they thank him? By attacking him for it. In fact, it only took them fifteen minutes to get around to it, calling the cut they'd previously urged the president to enact "a shocking attack."

Give them points for promptness. It only took them a few minutes to turn on the president (other Democratic "centrists" should take note) in 2013, and this year it took them less than a day to launch this latest attack. But then, Republicans opposed Social Security from the very start.

Who bears the human cost of their implacable hostility to this popular and vital program? Today it's the disabled. If they succeed, tomorrow it will be America's seniors -- along with Millennials, who would bear the brunt of future cuts to the retirement program.

But we'll all pay a price, one way or another, if they prevail -- most of all, for becoming the kind of people who unravel the threads which bind us together just when they're needed the most.

That's not a price any of us should be willing to pay.