The 114th Congress will see many new faces after the 2014 midterms; however, the face of our nation's middle class remains largely unchanged - they're poorer, more diverse, getting older and facing a retirement crisis which threatens millions. How will this new Congress address this old reality? Not one of the newly-elected Members of Congress campaigned on promises to cut benefits to Social Security and Medicare, yet it's already clear the new GOP majority considers lowering corporate tax rates and cutting benefits to middle-class seniors a priority. Same as it ever was.
The disconnect between many in Congress and average Americans on Social Security and Medicare is certainly nothing new. In poll after poll, the American people clearly do not support cutting middle-class benefits in these programs to balance the budget or bankroll tax cuts for the wealthy or large corporations already dodging billions in taxes each year. Contrary to the current political mythology that the American people aren't willing to be "grownups" and make the "tough choices" for our nation, the fact is, they simply don't support the benefit-cutting strategy preferred by many Washington politicians. Not only do they oppose cutting benefits, most Americans support boosting benefits.
A new report by the National Academy of Social Insurance, "Americans Make Hard Choices on Social Security" shows that Americans' support for Social Security is unparalleled and they are willing to pay more in taxes to stabilize the system's finances and improve benefits. NASI reported:
Seven out of 10 participants prefer a package that would eliminate Social Security's long-term financing gap without cutting benefits. The preferred package would:
• Gradually, over 10 years, eliminate the cap on earnings taxed for Social Security. With this change, the 6 percent of workers who earn more than the cap would pay into Social Security all year, as other workers do. In return, they would get somewhat higher benefits.
• Gradually, over 20 years, raise the Social Security tax rate that workers and employers each pay from 6.2 percent of earnings to 7.2 percent. A worker earning $50,000 a year would pay about 50 cents a week more each year, matched by the employer.
• Increase Social Security's cost-of-living adjustment to reflect the inflation experienced by seniors.
• Raise Social Security's minimum benefit so that a worker who pays into Social Security for 30 years or more can retire at 62 or later and have benefits above the federal poverty line.
Exit polling after the midterm election, even in Republican-leaning states, mirrored the findings in the NASI report. Public Policy Polling found 86 percent opposition to allowing any cuts to Social Security and Medicare with 79 percent opposition among Republicans. Voters say they are also less likely to vote for a candidate who supports making cuts to Social Security and Medicare by 70 points. Of course, this isn't really a surprise to political candidates. It's why you will rarely hear politicians telling voters they plan to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits for the millions of middle-class families who depend on them. Instead, candidates have successfully deployed a dodge-and-deflect strategy built on Orwellian language in which they say they'll "preserve" these programs when they actually mean privatize, "strengthen" when they mean slash, or "give you choices" when they mean you're on your own. While that strategy has certainly worked on the campaign trail, what remains to be seen is if the new Republican majority can successfully govern using the same approach.
Congress' new leadership may want to give former President George Bush a call. Not so many years ago, he believed his "voter mandate" cleared the way to privatize Social Security - cutting benefits and putting workers' guaranteed benefits at risk on Wall Street. That didn't turn out so well for the President simply because the American people understood then, as they do today, the abiding value of America's retirement and health security programs. Outside Washington, Social Security and Medicare aren't regarded as political or partisan because they are synonymous with economic survival for millions of workers, retirees, people with disabilities and their families.
The difference between campaigning and governing is vast -- something the members of the 114th Congress will discover first hand if cuts to Social Security and Medicare remain on their legislative agenda.