Senator Sanders, Ordinary Americans #OccupytheSuperCommittee

Days after the tents were ripped out of Zucotti Park in New York, hundreds of Americans brought the fight for the 99% to the nation’s capital on Thursday with a “Wake-Up Congress” rally calling for the Super Committee to support “Jobs, Not Cuts” to key social programs. Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) fittingly called it “#OccupyThe SuperCommittee.”

Thursday’s town hall-style event, organized by the Strengthen Social Security Campaign and other advocacy groups, was aimed at influencing the Super Committee, and the lawmakers who will vote on their proposal, against cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. The lawmakers on hand shared the stage with ordinary Americans who came to explain the importance of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid in their lives, and the harm that cuts would cause them.

If the goal of the rally was to “Wake Up Congress,” the message to which attendees wanted Congress to wake up was that “No deal is better than a bad deal.” Those on hand sough to push back against the conventional wisdom that the failure of the Super Committee to come up with $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction and the subsequent sequestration would be worse for the economy than a deal agreed to by the Super Committee members.

Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) spoke, as well as Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). But the hero, organizer and unofficial emcee of the event was Senator Sanders, who is far and away the most stalwart defender of social insurance programs in the United States Congress. The retirees, community members and activists who assembled there treated Sanders like a celebrity. Sanders’ entrance and exit were greeted with chants of “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie,” the likes of which are usually reserved for popular sports players.

Sanders gave plainspoken arguments against cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to reduce the country’s deficit. “Here’s the issue: The issue is that in fact, this country does have a serious deficit problem,” Sanders said. “But the reality is that the deficit was caused by two wars not paid for, huge tax breaks for the wealthiest people in this country, and a recession as a result of the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior on Wall Street. And if those are the causes of the deficit and the national debt I will be damned if we’re going to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly, the sick, children, and the poor. That’s wrong.”

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The speakers focused their criticism on two proposals that the Super Committee is rumored to be considering: the chained CPI (Consumer Price Index), which would reduce the Social Security COLA (cost-of-living adjustment); and an increase in the Medicare eligibility age from 65 to 67.

Senator Mikulski summed up the policy argument against the chained CPI. Mikulski effectively pointed out that the chained CPI’s logic of “price substitution” does not apply to seniors for whom health care costs make up the vast majority of expenses. “Sure, maybe you can switch to Dunkin Donuts from a latte if you’re young, but what are seniors going to do as drug prices go up?” Mikulski asked incredulously. “Will they substitute an expensive drug with water?”

(Another of Senator Mikulski’s memorable lines: “So here we are on the brink of Thanks giving…We are so mired in partisanship that we can’t seem to find a path forward. They think we [members of Congress] are the turkeys. Wherever I go in my state, they’re telling Congress to stuff it.”)

Senator Sanders spoke out strongly against raising the Medicare eligibility age, citing the cases of 65- and 66-year-olds who would have trouble getting private health insurance to cover their care. “If a 66-year-old gets cancer, what private health insurance is going to cover his treatment?” Sanders asked, before answering his own question. “The answer is none.”

It was the stories of some half dozen average Americans who spoke, however, that brought the hard numbers of the benefit cuts a human face. The people who testified included retirees on modest incomes, adults living with cerebral palsy and other disabilities, and people who lost parents and spouses upon whom they were financially dependent.

Marilyn Dixon-Hill from Camden, NJ, 58 years old, worked as a nurse for thirty years. A year ago to the day of the rally, Marilyn suffered from a disease that left her paralyzed. She has since regained the ability to walk, which she calls “a miracle,” but remains seriously physically impaired. As a result, she is unable to work and has begun collecting Social Security disability benefits.

Currently Marilyn has no medical insurance. Like other disability beneficiaries, Marilyn must wait two years to begin receiving Medicare benefits. “I need Medicare. I need Medicaid. No Cuts to Social Security,” Marilyn cried, tearing up as she said it. “These are safety nets for vulnerable people like myself.” Marilyn shared the concerns of many of the other speakers that benefit cuts would jeopardize their independence. “My fear is that with any cuts, I will not be able to care for myself and be a burden on my adult children, who have their own burdens in this economic system.”

The speaker who received perhaps the greatest applause was a retired Virginia man named Kenyon Peas. Peas, a retired union worker and veteran of the US military, paid into Social Security since 1958, when, at age 15, he worked as an amusement park ride operator. Peas’ Social Security check paid the out-of-pocket costs from serious medical problems, including a heart attack, and the removal of one-third of his lung, as well as Type 2 Diabetes, from which he continues to suffer. “Is this the way the United States honors its commitments?” Peas asked of plans to cut the programs. “The debt we owe China and others will most assuredly be repaid… Bank of America, among others, is too big to fail. We bailed them out. If you’re a working man or woman, we’ll cut your benefits, freeze or eliminate your COLA, and ask for your vote.”

Thursday’s rally in the Senate was the culmination in a series of actions by activists across the country protesting potential cuts to the three key programs. It started two weeks ago, when several thousand nurses and other union workers from around the country rallied in front of the White House and Treasury Department. They came from places as far away as Bemidji, Minnesota, to tell Congress to tax Wall Street—not cut the programs Americans need now more than ever.

Then more than 1,000 seniors from the Jane Addams Senior Caucus joined forces with #OccupyChicago to protest cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in Chicago, on November 7. The intergenerational solidarity against the tyranny of the 1% was a fitting refutation of conservative attempts to pit young against old.

Most recently, 3,200 seniors and union workers gathered in Wang Theatre in Boston to demonstrate against cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, on November 9.

The momentum of popular movements to prevent cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid shows no signs of abating. The American people are finally making their voices heard. Now it is up to Congress to listen.