Another Democratic Senator has now joined the push for a proposal that had previously been mostly debated in the blogosphere, far outside the boundaries of acceptable discourse: Increasing Social Security benefits, rather than cutting them.

Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon announced his support for increasing Social Security benefits in a release after a committee hearing he chaired yesterday on retirement security, but it has gotten little to no attention. Merkley said:

“Too many Americans are concerned they will never be able to afford to retire. Through Social Security, we can and should put a comfortable retirement within reach of more hardworking Americans. With traditional pensions available to fewer people and ordinary families facing risks and difficulties in saving enough for retirement through 401(k)s and IRAs, the landscape of retirement is changing and we must act. It’s time to give seniors a modest raise and change cost-of-living adjustments to reflect the real costs seniors face.” 

This puts Merkley in a small but growing camp that is advocating for an idea, first put forward by Dem Senator Mark Begich of Alaska, that would lift or change the payroll tax cap, meaning higher earners would pay more, while adopting a new measure for inflation that would increase benefits for all seniors. That measure is rooted in the idea, as Merkley put it in his release, that “seniors are more likely than others to spend large percentages of their income on costs that have risen faster than inflation, such as housing and medical care.”

Senators who now support making Security more generous include Merkley, Begich, Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Bernie Sanders.

The interesting political angle here is that Merkley and Begich are both up for reelection this year. Begich is facing one of the most competitive reelection fights of the cycle, while Merkely will almost certainly face a somewhat less competitive, but still substantial, challenge.

A Democratic aide confirms to me that Merkley will campaign on strengthening Social Security in a way that includes the push to make benefits more generous, not less.

“Strengthening social security and putting a few extra bucks in seniors’ pockets is good politics,” the aide tells me. “Democrats shouldn’t run away from their strength on Social Security. In fact, they should put it front and center. Social Security is a successful government program that’s been central to the Democratic Party’s identity for decades.”

This is in line with what some progressives have been advocating. They argue that getting dragged on to GOP austerity turf with proposals like “Chained CPI,” which would cut benefits, would dilute the contrast between the parties and undercut a traditional Democratic strength. By contrast, campaigning on strengthening social insurance programs — at a time when stagnating wages and the lingering damage of the Great Recession have increased anxieties about financially unsustainable retirement — would be better politics.

“If Democrats are going to keep the Senate and take back the House in 2014, it’s not going to happen by doing the same old thing and hoping to be the lesser of two evils,” Jim Dean, the head of progressive group Democracy for America, says. “Instead, Democrats need to be pushing for bold, proactive ideas that are incredibly popular with the American people, like expanding Social Security benefits.”

If Merkley — or Begich — do campaign to any significant degree on increasing Social Security benefits, this idea could be put to the test.


UPDATE: The idea is also supported by Senator Tom Harkin, and it’s in the House progressives’ budget, which is backed by 70 Dems. It has also been endorsed by Paul Krugman.

UPDATE II: Today Senator Merkley will send an email to members of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which also advocates for expanding Social Security, which reads, in part:

I’m proud to stand with Senators Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Brian Schatz, Tom Harkin, Mark Begich, Bernie Sanders, and Mazie Hirono in supporting this idea — in support of a large grassroots coalition.
The public must keep speaking out in order to keep momentum growing in Congress and to make this an issue candidates talk about in 2014.