Liberal push to expand Social Security gains steam

November 5, 2013

Senator Sherrod Brown is joining the push to expand Social Security, and he’s making a startling argument: Dems should go on offense on entitlements, rather than let Republicans and Beltway fiscal scolds frame the discussion as one over how much benefits should be cut, not one over whether they should be cut at all.

“There are two fundamental numbers that make this a moral case for Democrats to make,” Brown told me in an interview today. “One is that a third of seniors rely on Social Security for virtually their entire income. The other is that more than half of seniors rely on Social Security for significantly more than half their income.”

Brown is endorsing Tom Harkin’s bill to expand Social Security benefits, which would boost benefits for beneficiaries by $70 per month, change the cost-of-living calculation to keep pace with rising costs of things seniors need, and scrap the payroll tax cap to strengthen the program over the long term. The crusade to expand Social Security got started with liberal bloggers such as Atrios began pushing for it, and gained some momentum when liberal groups such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee began mobilizing behind the idea.

With Washington chatter centered on a “grand bargain” or at least a “mini bargain” that might involve entitlement cuts, expanding Social Security might seem like a dead end.  But when I pushed Brown on whether Dems would rally behind the idea — after all, Chained CPI is in the President’s budget — he insisted Dems should not cooperate in allowing a “Serious” center-right consensus that equates “fiscal responsibility” with cutting entitlement benefits to reign unchallenged.

“The Serious People — with a capital S and a capital P — all have really good pensions and good health care and good salaries,” Brown said. “Raise the cap. There are ways we can bring a lot of money into Social Security. Some Democrats are a bit cowed by the Serious People.”

Brown argues that if Republicans push for Social Security benefits cuts as part of any deal, Dems should counter with the Harkin proposal to shift the terms of the debate in a Democratic direction. Democratic priorities, he said, should be centered on the idea that declining pensions and wages (and savings) are undermining retirement security, and added that the public strongly opposed gutting social insurance.

“The situation for seniors is only going to get worse, because the assault on pensions and wages is making it more and more difficult for a worker to save for the future,” Brown said. “Why are we having a debate over how much we are going to hurt seniors? The debate should be over how we should structure a pension for seniors that will help them. Why would we play on their playing field? Democrats need to play offense here. Force Republicans to say what it is they really want to do. Republicans just don’t like social insurance.”

Greg Sargent writes The Plum Line blog, a reported opinion blog with a liberal slant -- what you might call “opinionated reporting” from the left.
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