Monday, November 2, 2015

Boehner Finally Does His Job

While he was packing up after he announced plans to quit in frustration with the far-right obstructionist Republicans, lame duck House Speaker John Boehner reached the very deal with the White House that the Freedom Caucus, a.k.a. the Tealiban, feared he would, to increase the debt limit so the US Treasury can pay the government’s bills until March 2017 and to approve the federal budget for two years.

The deal also relaxes the sequester, as military and domestic programs would get $25 billion each above current budget caps in this fiscal year and $15 billion each above budget caps in fiscal 2017.

So Democrats got $40 billion in additional domestic spending over two years and Republicans got $40 billion in additional military spending. Democrats also got a solution to a glitch in cost-of-living calculations that threatened to hike premiums 52% for 30% of Medicare Part B recipients and Democrats got a reallocation of Social Security funds to keep disability insurance solvent. Republicans had proposed to cut disability benefits by 20%.

Republicans got cuts to Medicare health care providers, a tightening of eligibility requirements to the Social Security Disability Insurance program and more resources to investigate purported Social Security fraud.

The compromise — that word the Tealiban detests — would get Congress through next year’s election without the threat of another right-wing-manufactured government shutdown. But it still depends on Congress approving the appropriations bills — which will fill in the broad budget outlines — by Dec. 11. That could give the Tealiban another swing at controversial issues such as Planned Parenthood and environmental regulations.

The deal gained the approval of AARP, which claims to represent 38 million seniors, and Social
Security Works, a group that advocates for retirement benefits.

Social Security Work’s president, Nancy Altman, said the Republican leadership had released its hostages: the need to raise the debt limit, the need to keep the government operating, and the need to ensure that all Social Security benefits can continue to be paid in full and on time beyond 2016. “When hostage takers release their hostages, we are, of course, relieved that the hostages are no longer in harm’s way, but this is nothing to celebrate. That the ransom isn’t steeper is also not something to celebrate,” Altman said in a prepared statement.

Part of the ransom, she said, is a diversion of Social Security resources towards virtually nonexistent fraud. “Those provisions will likely require workers with disabilities to wait longer to receive their earned benefits and may prevent some from receiving their earned benefits completely. That is wrong. The legislation has some good provisions, along with the ransom. It does ensure that Medicare beneficiaries will not experience drastically large premium increases. It also closes a loophole that was introduced in the law relatively recently that allows wealthier Americans to game the system by claiming extra benefits inconsistent with the goals of the program. …

Eventually, she said, Social Security should be expanded. “As the overwhelming majority of Americans recognize, Social Security’s one shortcoming is that its benefits are too low. Congress should follow the will of the people by expanding those modest but vital benefits and restore the program to long range actuarial balance by requiring the wealthiest among us to pay their fair share.”

The House “Freedom Caucus,” a group of about 40 right-wing Congress members who led the fight to unseat Speaker Boehner, wanted the next speaker to commit to tie any increase in the debt ceiling to real cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

The Freedom Caucus wanted the next speaker to commit to not funding the government unless President Obama agreed to defund Obamacare, Planned Parenthood and other priorities. They didn’t want an omnibus bill that would keep the government running. Instead, they wanted separate bills to finance the military while leaving behind domestic programs. They were looking for a repeat of the 16-day shutdown in 2013, hoping that this time Obama and congressional Democrats would capitulate.

As a lame duck, Boehner was able to strike a deal that could rely on a minority of Republicans joining Democrats to pass it, without worrying about the unofficial “Hastert rule” that requires a majority of Republicans to approve any House action. The deal was approved 266-167 Oct. 28, with 79 Republicans joining 187 Democrats for the bipartisan majority, and 167 Republicans voting no.

Ways & Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the likely successor to Boehner, tried to distance himself from the distasteful compromise since he didn’t participate in the negotiations and he said the process “stinks,” although his Ways & Means staff worked on it and he voted for it. However, Ryan is a right-winger who agrees with the Tealiban on forcing cuts and/or privatization to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He has earned the nickname “zombie-eyed granny starver” bestowed by Charles Pierce of Esquire.

But suspicions that Ryan is a latent compromiser complicated his race for speaker. The Republican caucus nominated Ryan for speaker on Oct. 28, before the vote on the deal, but he only got 200 votes in the caucus, 18 short of a majority, as Tealiban Rep. Dan Webster (R-Fla.) got 43. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), whose hopes to become speaker were dashed after he spilled the beans that the special Benghazi committee was set up to bring down Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers, got 1 vote. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), the chair of the new House PAC to probe Planned Parenthood, also got 1 vote.

Republicans had set up the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) fund to hit a cash crunch that was expected to force a 20% reduction in disability benefits for 11 million beneficiaries in January. The new budget deal will allow 100% of promised SSDI benefits to continue to be paid through 2022.

Expand Social Security

The agreement does not address the long-term needs of the Social Security Trust Funds. The Social Security retirement fund is projected to run out of money in 2034, but incoming revenues would still be able to fund an estimated 79% of scheduled benefits, according to the Social Security trustees’ most recent report in July. There is a simple fix to keep full promised benefits coming for the foreseeable future: Congress should do away with the ceiling on taxable income, so that a person earning $1 million no longer pays the same amount of payroll tax as a person earning $118,500 (the current ceiling on taxable income). That would raise about $100 billion a year from the wealthy and close the funding gap. In 2010, the Congressional Research Service said removing the cap would make the Social Security Trust Funds solvent for at least the next 75 years.

This is a fix that you don’t see or hear much about in the corporate media. Their correspondents are more likely to advise people approaching retirement to prepare for cuts in their expected benefits. They even tell young people entering the workforce not to expect Social Security to survive until they retire. And the oligarchs’ propaganda has been successful: A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that 50% of Gen Xers and 51% of Millennials said they believed they would receive no Social Security benefits at all by the time they retire. (Republican presidential candidates debating in Boulder Oct. 28 reinforced this myth.) But in January 2015, 66% of Americans told Pew that taking steps to make Social Security financially sound should be a top priority for Obama and Congress, placing it fifth among 23 issues, and 67% said benefits should not be reduced.

Improving and expanding Social Security won’t happen under a Republican administration, or with Ryan in the Speaker’s Office. On the Democratic side, the issue distinguishes Bernie Sanders from Hillary Clinton. At the first Democratic presidential debate Sanders supported removing the cap on taxable income, while Clinton said she supports Social Security and would defend against Republican efforts to privatize it, but she would not commit to supporting Sanders’ plan to expand it. — JMC
From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2015

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