Here's an "Washington insider" story that could affect every family in the country. Congressional newspaper The Hill reported today that Sen. Chuck Schumer was considering using a special parliamentary maneuver to push a budget deal.
But this wasn't just another "inside baseball" story, the kind that fascinates policy wonks and bores all other living beings. This story included an explosive paragraph which seemed to suggest that Schumer, the Senate's #3 Democrat, was interested in a deal that included the "chained-CPI" cut to Social Security benefits. It also included cryptic language about "Medicare reform," words that are often used as Beltway code for raising the eligibility age or other drastic benefit reductions to that program.
While the "chained CPI" is often pitched as a "technical adjustment" or "a more accurate say to measure cost-of-living increases," it's neither. The formula is less accurate and less fair than today's already-inadequate formula for calculating expenses for people on Social Security, and would result in a 3 percent benefit cut for the average senior (considerably more for those who live longer).
After initial calls to Schumer's office went unreturned, Roger Hickey of the Campaign for America's Future (see disclaimer below) issued a statement which read in part:
"If Sen. Schumer's proposal was accurately reported, the senator could not be more wrong ... Sen. Schumer has previously been a strong opponent of cuts to Social Security. The Campaign for America's Future reminds him and all Democrats that the chained CPI would mean an immediate cut to current Social Security benefits. These cuts are very unpopular with all Americans, and Democrats should be leading the fight to protect Social Security and Medicare, not helping Republicans accomplish their harmful goals."
The skepticism in that statement was warranted, since Schumer signed Sen. Bernie Sanders' letter opposing Social Security "deficit" cuts. Schumer also told the National Press Club last October that "I don't think raising the age will happen," adding: "There's a lot of opposition to it."
But advocates for seniors and the disabled, and progressive groups and individuals as well, have grown accustomed to walkbacks and equivocation from Democrats like President Obama (see "folks won't even notice 'em") on Social Security and Medicare. So the story was credible enough to touch a nerve with advocacy groups, independent activists, and progressive Democratic politicians.
In what seemed to be a reaction to the story, the Congressional Progressive Caucus issued a statement immediately afterward entitled "CPC Rejects Proposed Cuts to Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security." It read...
"Using the chained CPI to reduce cost of living adjustments is a benefit cut that middle class Americans cannot afford. Whether pursued through the budget process or any other means, we will do everything in our power to oppose these cuts. The American public has been clear -- they want us to defend and strengthen Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security. We have stood with them throughout this process, and we continue to stand with them."
Schumer staffers also reportedly made at least two off-the-record calls to progressive groups strongly denying the story. By this time Sen. Schumer had been the target of some negative comments from activists, as well as tweets like the one which read "@ChuckSchumer Chained CPI for #SocialSecurity is a benefit cut. We paid for your gov pension." (The tweet, like many of those opposing the chained CPI, used the hashtag #noSocSecCuts.)
As it turns out, Schumer apparently never said it. At 6 pm this evening The Hill modified its article to include a paragraph which read:
"Schumer's office does not support the idea of fast-tracking Medicare cuts or the chained-CPI formula for Social Security through a budget resolution, proposals that Republicans would likely support. A Schumer aide noted that a reconciliation package could not make cuts to Social Security."
But activists, progressives, and independent groups remain on full alert. This denial is welcome, but it's based on procedural rules and is not a statement of unequivocal opposition to these reductions. Democrats on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue can expect the fierce resistance to the chained CPI and all other benefit cuts to continue.
This is partly the story of a poorly-worded paragraph on a volatile topic. But it's primarily an economic and political story, not a media one. The fiery response from House progressives and outside groups demonstrates that there is growing and organized resistance to the chained-CPI. The prompt clarification from Schumer's office, as reported in The Hill, shows that an increasing awareness among leading Democrats that the idea is politically toxic.
That demonstrates keen survival instincts, among other things. After two years of benefit-cutting hints from the White House, by 2010 the Democratic Party had squandered a 25-point lead in public confidence on the question "Who do you trust will do a better job handling Social Security?" At that point President Obama was trusted by only 26 percent of Americans to protect the program -- a lower figure than George W. Bush! (Bush tried to privatize the program in 2005.)
Dems were able to restore much of that confidence, thanks both to the President's eloquence and the radical ideas in the Ryan/Romney budget plan. But memories of this painful fall, and the resulting loss of the House of Representatives, has helped create a hair-trigger sensitivity toward the chained CPI among Congressional Dems -- most of whom will, unlike the President, be running for office again. Advocacy groups clearly intend to remind them of that fact.
This story also shows that the fight to protect Social Security benefits is far from over, and that both public opinion and advocacy groups are playing an active role in the battle. It illustrates the dangers Democrats face when they don't clearly distance themselves from the chained CPI, or from other cuts to Social Security or Medicare. They can expect increasing pressure to state their opposition to these cuts in unequivocal terms, as both Sen. Sanders and Rep. Hank Johnson have done, in the weeks and months to come.
(Disclaimer/conflict of interest note: I am a Senior Fellow with the Campaign for America's Future and work closely with Social Security Works, an advocacy organization for seniors, disabled, children, and all Americans who currently receive Social Security benefits or are likely to in the future. Which, come to think of it, is pretty much everybody.)