Why do hosts on Sunday talk shows never ask congressional Republicans if they know their cleverly designed bills to destroy Social Security mean that most Americans will have penniless, elderly parents or relatives underfoot day and night? Indeed, that was the case prior to August 14, 1935, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law.
Killing Social Security would force most recipients — currently more than 59 million — back to those terrible days of retirees trying to survive on minuscule savings, unreliable pensions and investments.
The culture and laws of previous centuries expected those families to take care of the elderly financially, physically and emotionally. Some 30 states still have “relative-responsibility” laws mandating total support. Indeed, many of those laws now permit eldercare facilities to sue families for unpaid bills.
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So, willingly or not, most sons and sons-in-law housed and fed their elderly. Daughters and daughters-in-law bore the physical and emotional cost of becoming caregivers for relatives experiencing the effects of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease until the relative’s death.
Nearly 50 percent of Congress’s 534 members are now millionaires who probably shipped grandma or great-uncle Willy to retirement communities or nursing homes. For the rest of us, Republican lawmakers’ answers to a TV host’s critical “underfoot” question would be a game-changer at the ballot box. Any hesitation, side-stepping or lying would mean they either don’t care about those impacted, or are afraid to defy their donors’ never-ending plots to destroy Social Security. Election in November’s midterms will depend on their answers, and honesty may not be the best policy for political careers.
Republicans and Grandma
Ideal congressional Republicans to ask about grandma’s fate include Social Security’s latest and greatest enemies, among them:
- Orrin Hatch who authored a failed Constitutional amendment bill in 2015 mandating a balanced budget that would have overturned the Social Security law.
- Bob Goodlatte, who tried the balanced-budget ploy again this year and failed. It would have made it unconstitutional for Social Security to spend its funds.
- Kevin Brady, who authored the recent 10-year, $1.5 trillion tax-cut law benefiting corporations and the rich and was partially paid for by gutting Social Security and entitlement safety-net programs. He also just hoppered a follow-up bill called “Tax Reform 2.0” to make those cuts permanent — bringing the total to $3 trillion — and adding a Universal Savings Account catering to the wealthy.
- House Speaker Paul Ryan, who engineered passage of that first tax-cut bill into law.
- Republicans who either co-sponsored those bills or voted for them.
For decades, congressional Republicans have been rigorously supported by Republican presidents like George W. Bush and Donald Trump in vain attempts to steal the trillions from the “lock-box” of the self-sustaining Social Security Trust Fund. In 2017, it stood at $2.9 trillion, an astronomical sum that could easily cover those tax-cut bills today.
Bush grew up among old money’s privilege and was worth $20 million when he became president. So, in his circle, few were likely to know or empathize with anyone surviving only on Social Security, much less tolerate the program, even though it did not cost them a nickel. They regarded recipients either as losers, or as billionaire Leona Helmsley called them, “little people [who] pay taxes.”
George H.W. Bush was nearly 11 when Social Security started and later, he bought into the elitist contempt for it when he became the Republican nominee for a House seat in 1978. He championed letting employees invest part of Social Security’s withholding deductions. This move could have led to investing or banking the entire sum and killing the Social Security Fund.
Giddy with his 2004 re-election, Bush Jr. set out in early March of 2005 to barnstorm the US (“60 stops in 60 days”) to “educate” people about investments having a far higher return than Social Security and could be passed as inheritance. He was met with national rage and an education from those vigilantly loyal to Social Security. Within months, his approval rating dropped markedly, and he likely learned that touching Social Security was, and still is, the third rail of US politics.
Trump’s background and Social Security views are much the same and his extended family is certainly cared for. Moreover, he is a master Orwellian trickster with his base supporters. Soon after his inauguration, his tax-bill’s key designers — Budget Director Mick Mulvaney and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin — included a provision eliminating the payroll tax, which would kill Social Security and Medicare while finally freeing employers from having to match Social Security’s withholdings. President Obama opened that door in 2010 with a one-time-only “tax holiday” for consumer recovery from the 2008 market crash. It cut employee withholdings from 6.2 percent to 4.2 percent.
Wiser heads in Congress deleted that provision, but that temporary “tax holiday” set a precedent. Temporary can become permanent. Trump’s chief economist Larry Kudlow just indicated Social Security is still on the chopping block if Republicans retain their congressional majority from the midterms.
Social Security Checks Are Not Handouts
The principle message of Social Security’s opponents, perpetrated since Roosevelt’s signature was dry, is the blatant lie that the checks are handouts forced from unwilling taxpayers.
Totally unlike traditional insurance products, Social Security payments are more like mandated savings accounts. But given the banking industry’s appalling reputation in the 1930s, Roosevelt ensured Social Security withholdings were officially called the “Federal Insurance Contributions Act” (FICA). The FICA name on paycheck stubs may puzzle the workforce, but it’s the Social Security withholding amount.
Employers equally match those FICA withholdings. The current rate for both is 6.2 percent, totaling 12.4 percent. FICA money is held in the US Treasury’s Social Security Insurance Fund “lock box” and dispensed monthly to contributors either at 62, 65 or 70, until death. Surviving spouses and ex-spouses continue to receive those checks until their deaths.
So far, the Fund has been considered “untouchable,” even if a desperate president or Congress wants to raid this gold mine for a “temporary” loan. Social Security has nothing to do with the Supplemental Security Income program which does use tax revenues to subsidize people with limited income and resources from general revenues.
Right now, Trump is campaigning for congressional candidates and shouting perhaps his greatest political lie: The Democrats are out to “destroy your Social Security…. I’m going to save your Social Security! We’re not touching your Social Security!”
Fortunately for him, no one at his rallies is brave enough to yell, “You mean FICA?” If this game over the legal name of FICA for payroll withholdings ever winds up in court, failure of Social Security defendants to use “FICA” instead of “Social Security” could spell trouble for the program.
Democratic Inaction Permits Trump to Lie About Social Security
Aside from this tactic, the only reason Trump gets away with such an incredible lie probably is because the Democratic National Committee and most of its midterm candidates, up until recently, have failed to do shout-outs for Social Security. They’ve taken for granted that the public will mount that ferocious defense for them as they did to Bush’s ill-fated sales trip for swapping Social Security withholdings for Wall Street’s high-risk products.
It’s commendable that Democratic progressive movements instantly struck down Trump’s lie. Further, it’s heartening that at least 157 members of Congress’s progressive Democratic wing immediately rolled out an “Expand Social Security Caucus.” They plan not only to “combat the GOP’s efforts to gut the program [but] move to make it even stronger.”
Caucus leaders are credible barn-burners and fast-drawers on bills: Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, and the House’s Rep. Debbie Dingell, Rep. Raul Grijalva, Rep. Conor Lamb, Rep. John Larson and Rep. Terri Sewell.
Among the bills they’ll hopper in the next session may be Representative Larsen’s H.R. 1902: Social Security 2100 Act. It was filed last year, but is still locked up in three committees. Its chief provision is to boost the Social Security withholding amount from the present maximum (the “cap”) of $128,400 to $400,000.
If they removed the cap altogether, however, the yield would be a bonanza to the Social Security Fund, especially from CEOs. For example, last year, those at the 350 largest companies earned an average of $18.9 million. By combining both withholding rates (at .124 percent), that group alone would have contributed an annual $820 million to the Social Security Fund. Moreover, because 17 percent of the total workforce earns above the current cap of $128,400, they escape contributing to the Fund.
Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer Absent From Progressive Efforts
Unfortunately, the Democrats’ congressional leaders have yet to come aboard. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi is not among the 174 co-sponsors of Representative Larson’s bill. Neither she nor her Senate counterpart Chuck Schumer is about to join those caucus progressives. She must have thought her platitude-filled statement honoring Social Security on its 83rd anniversary was enough.
What’s needed from Democrats before the election are fiery Social Security stem-winding speeches in town halls, at rallies and in house-party videos, as well as in media interviews, advertising, and on political websites and social media. Democrats need to play hardball against the Republicans’ never-ending efforts to kill Social Security by pounding on the podium about what will happen in this country if they should ever succeed.
Among the shout-out points:
- Destitute elders will be forced to join family households.
- Most families will be impoverished by having to pay for a relative’s stay at retirement or nursing homes.
- Social Security funds will be stolen to cover continuing tax cuts to corporations and the rich, meeting debt shortfalls, enriching favored departments and programs — and corruption.
- Social Security is self-sustaining. It doesn’t take taxpayer dollars, but pays taxes.
- Social Security payments averaging $1,259 to 60 million retirees was spent immediately on goods and services. Social Security’s multiplier ratio of $2-for-$1 provides a spectacular boost to the economy of an annual $1.4 trillion, and has been cited as the nation’s greatest economic stimulus.
- Thousands of goods-and-services businesses will close without Social Security customers.
With all of this at stake, it’s high time the Democrats take off the gloves, put on the brass knuckles and give shout-outs for Social Security. If Republicans keep their majority in Congress, they’ll have the votes to pass a law — and Trump will sign it — to end Social Security just as Roosevelt had the votes to start it.