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Sanders vs. Biden on Social Security: A guide to the claims

Supporters cheer as Sen. Bernie Sanders exits the stage after speaking at University of Michigan’s the Diag on March 8, 2020 in Ann Arbor, Mich. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

“Joe Biden claims in a new ad that he has always protected Social Security. That’s patently false. He can’t hide 40 years of working with Republicans to cut Social Security.”

— Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), in a Twitter thread, March 7, 2020

Now that the Democratic primary race has narrowed to Sanders and former vice president Joe Biden, Sanders has begun attacking Biden for supposedly wanting to cut Social Security. Biden cried foul in a new ad. In a Twitter thread, the Sanders campaign highlighted comments or votes by Biden dating back almost four decades.

Regular readers of The Fact Checker know we often warn about campaign attacks highlighting certain votes or comments that are so old they often lack context. Overall, Sanders offers a misleading portrayal. So here’s a guide to these statements.

“In 1983, Biden pushed to raise the Social Security retirement age.”

Sanders cites a newspaper clip from Jan. 11, 1983, that says, “Biden suggested a gradual increase in the retirement age would help improve the Social Security system.” This was not a controversial position at the time. Two months after these comments, large bipartisan majorities in both the House and Senate agreed to the Social Security amendments of 1983, which included raising the retirement age to 67 and increasing payroll taxes to improve the solvency of the program.

The broad outlines of the plan was recommended by the National Commission on Social Security Reform and is believed to have strengthened the long-term health of Social Security. Sanders, in 1999, praised the 1983 law an example of bipartisan cooperation.

“We should remember that in 1982, Social Security was within a few months — a few months — of not being able to pay out all benefits owed to Americans,” Sanders said. “And then people came together and said of course we want to save Social Security. They worked together, and they did.”

“In 1984, Joe Biden first pushed to freeze funding for Social Security — which would end up cutting Social Security benefits.”

In the mid-1980s, bipartisan alarm grew over soaring federal budget deficits under President Ronald Reagan. Biden, along with two Republican senators and another Democrat (Max Baucus of Montana), proposed a simple solution — a one-year freeze on all spending, including defense spending and social programs such as Social Security.

Biden pitched it as the “last best chance” to keep deficits from undermining the economic recovery and dropping the country into another recession. He also said it would avoid having to “make other significant changes in Medicare and significant changes in Social Security generally.”

The plan was rejected 33 to 65, though more Democrats than Republicans voted for it.

Whatever one may make of the proposal, it was not aimed at Social Security specifically but was part of an effort to reduce the budget deficit. The Washington Post reported the “dramatic simplicity” of the plan was “its fatal flaw as conservatives rebelled at the deep cuts it would have made in Reagan’s military buildup, liberals balked at the constraints it would have put on major domestic benefit programs such as Social Security and many moderates shuddered at both results.”

“In 1995, I was on the House floor fighting the GOP’s efforts to cut Social Security. Five days later, Joe Biden gave a speech in the Senate bragging about his work with the GOP to try to freeze funding for Social Security.”

Fast forward 10 years to another budget fight. Republicans had taken control of the House and Senate and were pressing for passage of a balanced-budget amendment. Biden did make a floor speech on Jan. 31, 1995, which referenced his 1984 effort to freeze all spending.

“When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well. I meant Medicare and Medicaid. I meant veterans benefits. I meant every single solitary thing in the government. And I not only tried it once, I tried it twice. I tried it a third time, and I tried it a fourth time.”

Again, Sanders frames this as an effort only about Social Security, but it was much broader — aimed at every part of government, including defense.

“In the mid-1990s, Joe Biden was criticized by seniors’ groups for supporting balanced budget amendments that would cut Social Security.”

Sanders here cites a newspaper clip that says an array of liberal-leaning groups — not just senior groups — were angry at Biden for supporting an amendment to the constitution mandating a balanced budget. The fear was that such an amendment would force reductions in domestic spending.

Biden was one of 10 Democrats in the Senate who supported the amendment; 35 Democrats were opposed. But the amendment failed to get the necessary two-thirds majority for passage.

The amendment itself does not mention Social Security. Biden tried to pass an amendment exempting Social Security, but he did not get the necessary votes. Social Security at the time was running huge surpluses, helping to mask the full extent of the budget deficit.

“For the next 20 years or so, revenues from the Social Security Trust Fund will make it look like we have balanced the budget when in fact we have not, and after that the huge outlays from the trust fund will force drastic reductions in the rest of federal spending, or drastic reductions in Social Security,” Biden said in his floor speech.

“In 1996, Joe Biden floated the idea of reducing Social Security benefits through an early version of chained CPI.”

Here, Sanders cites a newspaper clip of Biden in a debate with a Republican challenger. The solvency of Social Security was considered an urgent issue at the time, given the pending retirement of the baby boom generation, and Republicans promoted ideas such as allowing Americans to divert Social Security moneys into private investment accounts. Biden’s challenger supported that idea. In the debate, Biden countered that there were less dramatic ways to find savings in Social Security such as reducing the interest rate to calculate cost of living benefits or boosting the retirement age by a year.

A “Chained CPI” — Chained Consumer Price Index — is a different way of calculating increases in the cost of living. It assumes people adjust buying patterns when prices changes, and it results in a slightly lower rate of inflation. So benefits for programs such as Social Security grow at a slower rate — what Sanders calls a cut.

The Associated Press reported Sanders saying in 1996 that the aging population made it “clear that we will have to make incremental adjustments in Social Security taxes and benefits — as Congress has done in the past.” The Sanders campaign has insisted “adjustments” did not mean reductions in benefits.

“In 2007, NBC reported that as president, Joe Biden’s Social Security plans ‘would include discussing options such as upping the retirement age.’”

Sanders here cites a news story (actually by the Associated Press but on the NBC News website) from when Biden was running for president, titled “Biden unveils plan to protect retirement savings.” The article is mostly about his plan to bolster retirement savings but adds:

“To protect Social Security, Biden said he would bring both parties to the table to keep the plan paying out. That would include discussing options such as upping the retirement age and raising the cap on income subject to the Social Security tax past the $97,500 it was in 2007. ‘It ain’t broke — it doesn’t need privatization,’ he said of Social Security. ‘There’s other ways to help savings.’”

Again, you can see Biden’s comments mostly are intended to rebut Republican hopes for private Social Security accounts. Raising the cap on the amount of income subject to Social Security tax — currently $137,700 — was a common proposal by Democrats at that time.

“In 2007, Joe Biden appeared on Meet the Press to say that Social Security and Medicare cuts should be ‘on the table.’”

Biden was challenged by host Tim Russert on the growing budget deficit, and he indicated a willingness to bargain if a lasting deal could be reached.

Russert: “Senator, we have a deficit. We have Social Security and Medicare looming. The number of people on Social Security and Medicare is now 40 million people. It’s going to be 80 million in 15 years. Would you consider looking at those programs, age of eligibility …”
Biden: “Absolutely.”
Russert: “…cost of living, put it all on the table.”

Biden went on to cite the bipartisan agreement leading to the 1983 Social Security amendments: “That’s the kind of leadership that is needed. Social Security’s not the hard one to solve. Medicare, that is the gorilla in the room, and you’ve got to put all of it on the table.”

During the Obama administration, when the soaring federal deficit again was a major issue, President Barack Obama and then House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) discussed a “grand bargain” that would have raised the retirement age and changed the formula for calculating Social Security benefits, in addition to reductions to Medicare and Medicaid, in exchange for higher taxes on the wealthy. No deal was ever reached.

Though it’s not in the Twitter thread, we are going to add one more example, sent to The Fact Checker by Sanders research director Tyson Brody, since it might appear in some future attack.

1995: Biden offers to cut $89 billion from Medicare.

During a Senate floor speech over the GOP plan for a balanced budget calling for reducing Medicare spending by $270 billion over seven years, Biden said, “You guys want a balanced budget in 7 years, and you want CBO [Congressional Budget Office] numbers. I want a balanced budget, too, but I do not want to cut as much Medicare as you do. I do not want to cut as much as you do, and I do not want to give as big a tax break as you want.’’

Biden went on to say: “So we can make a deal, make a deal. We will split the difference between the CBO figure of 2.4 and the OMB [Office of Management and Budget] figure of 2.6. Take 2.5 — that is $250 billion. And make another agreement. Agree I will go for a bigger cut in Medicare. I say we only need to do $89 billion. That is all we need — not $270 billion. I will split the difference with you on that.”

This was not an unusual position for a Democrat at the time. A few months later, President Bill Clinton unveiled a budget plan that would have cut Medicare by $124 billion over seven years, a much bigger reduction than suggested by Biden.

The Bottom Line

Sanders framed this as “40 years of working with Republicans to cut Social Security.” But these statements came during periods when a growing budget deficit was a major concern in official Washington. Biden, like many mainstream politicians, thought action needed to be taken.

In some cases, Biden offered proposals intended to counter more extreme options offered by Republicans. At other times, Biden indicated a willingness to bargain with Republicans, though any deal resulting in spending reductions in entitlement programs was forever elusive. After 1983, the benefit cuts never happened.

In one case — 1983 — Sanders attacks Biden for supporting a deal that Sanders himself had praised. That’s rich.

Also missing from this picture are the many votes Biden took to increase certain Social Security benefits or block GOP plans; the Biden campaign provides a list of nearly 50 votes from Biden’s long Senate career.

Meanwhile, both parties now appear to have abandoned any pretense about caring about budget deficits. Biden’s campaign platform calls for raising Social Security payroll taxes on wealthier Americans and boosting benefits for people who have been receiving Social Security payments for at least 20 years.

Biden certainly could be challenged on why he took these positions at the time, but the snippets cited by Sanders are missing important context.

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