Earlier this summer, lawmakers introduced a bill to “save” Social Security that reads like a desperate attempt to appeal to the growing movement to expand the program. The proposal, introduced by Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI), is called the “S.O.S. Act”—short for the “Save Our Social Security Act of 2016” (get it?).
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The new legislation includes many of the stealth benefit cuts that conservatives have been pushing for years. It calls for increasing the retirement age from 66 to 69. Even a one-year increase in the retirement age is equivalent to a 7 percent cut in benefits for all retirees, so raising the full retirement age to 69 would cost millions of Americans thousands of dollars in benefits. It would also have a disproportionate impact on low-income workers, who get a larger share of their income from Social Security.
The bill also includes the now-infamous “chained CPI”—a measure of inflation that would chip away at Social Security benefits over time. In the long run, the new formula would cut earned benefits by an additional $1,000 a year.
But the new proposal does more than just cut Social Security—it includes something few Congressional Republicans were advocating just a few years ago.
Section 2 of the bill—titled “Increase Contribution and Benefit Base”—calls for raising the cap on the payroll tax that funds Social Security benefits from $118,500 to $308,750. In other words, the wealthiest Americans would be asked to contribute a little bit more to fund the program. The bill also increases benefits for the oldest beneficiaries, and creates a minimum benefit for beneficiaries who are at or near the poverty level.
These—albeit modest—concessions underscore just how far the Social Security debate has moved under President Obama. In 2010, with post-recession deficit concerns still running high, President Obama created a “National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform” (often referred to as “Simpson-Bowles,” after its co-chairs) that proposed an increase in the Social Security retirement age and a new, more meager measure of inflation. Future House Speaker Paul Ryan’s budget plan that year went a step further: He not only put forward massive cuts, but set up private accounts that would bankrupt the program over the long haul. Then in 2011, the White House offered cuts to Social Security and Medicare in “grand bargain” negotiations with Republicans.
The shift that followed the failed attempt at a “grand bargain” is now well-known. Progressives, led by groups like Social Security Works, organized labor, and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, shifted from defense to offense. In 2013, New America released a comprehensive plan to expand Social Security. Last year, one of the program’s staunchest advocates, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, rallied all but two Senate Democrats to support a resolution to “expand and protect” Social Security. And in June, the President publicly endorsed expansion.
The “S.O.S Act” is nowhere close to the emerging progressive consensus around Social Security. In addition to benefit increases, it includes many of the same cuts proposed in Simpson-Bowles. And, since the Republican author of the bill is retiring at the end of this Congress (along with three of the bill’s original cosponsors), any progress should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.
But for the first time, conservatives are cloaking benefit cuts with the rhetoric of “strengthening” Social Security. The center on Social Security policy has moved—and conservatives don’t know how to catch up.