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McCarthy’s prescription for debt ceiling is bad medicine for older Americans 

Republicans pledged during the State of the Union to take Social Security and Medicare off the table in debt ceiling negotiations, but Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) new plan demands that older and working Americans pay for the GOP’s miserly fiscal agenda in other ways.  The House Republicans’ recently released proposal for lifting the debt ceiling would hobble federal services that seniors rely on, including customer service at the Social Security Administration.  

We and 30 other seniors’ advocacy groups have sent a letter to Speaker McCarthy urging the House to pass a clean bill to lift the debt ceiling, as Congress had done nearly 80 times in the past. We object to House Republicans risking a default on the federal government’s debts, which could lead to global economic catastrophe. As President Biden said in a speech last week, “A default would destroy the economy. And who do you think it would hurt the most? You! Hard working people. The middle class.”   

We think it’s morally and fiscally wrong to hold Americans’ financial well-being hostage to the demands of the MAGA wing of the GOP, whose agenda does not reflect the will of the majority of voters. A Washington Post/ABC News poll in February indicated that 65 percent of Americans want a clean debt ceiling bill, while only 26 percent said the Biden administration should first agree to federal spending cuts.  

We’ve seen this movie before. In 2011, Tea Party Republicans refused to raise the debt ceiling without deep spending cuts. Despite opposition from most Democrats, the ensuing debt battle left us with automatic spending caps that still have lingering effects on the federal government, including chronic underfunding of the Social Security Administration — which tens of millions of seniors rely on for customer service.

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, here they go again. House Republicans are demanding spending caps that will shortchange almost every federal agency.  They propose to freeze spending at FY 2022 levels (a whopping $4.5 trillion in cuts) which would amount to an estimated 23 percent reduction for everything except the military and veterans programs. The Social Security Administration, for one, needs more — not less — funding to do its job for the American people.  

Without proper SSA funding, Social Security claimants have suffered through field office closings, interminable wait times on the agency’s toll-free phone line, and lengthy delays in Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) hearings. The Washington Post reported in 2017 that 10,000 SSDI claimants had died awaiting a chance to plead their cases. Now, Republicans want to cut at least 23 percent from this vital federal agency.  

Ironically, SSA is one of the most fiscally responsible federal agencies, with administrative costs below 1 percent. But since 2010, SSA’s operating budget has been cut by 17 percent (adjusted for inflation), while the number of beneficiaries has soared. With 10,000 baby boomers turning 65 every day, Kevin McCarthy’s party wants to gut the agency that handles their benefits.   

The GOP’s draconian cuts also would affect seniors’ programs under the Older Americans Act (OAA). This includes federal funding for programs like home delivered meals, in-home services, transportation, legal services, elder abuse prevention and caregiver support. Even the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program that helps low-income seniors keep their homes heated in the winter and cool in the summer would be cut under the Republican plan. These cuts aren’t fiscally responsible. They’re downright cruel.

Speaking of mean-spirited fiscal policy, the GOP plan would impose work requirements on Medicaid patients — including “near seniors” in their 50s who may not be able to afford private insurance and are not yet eligible for Medicare. Medicaid is a health care program for low-income Americans, not a vehicle for forcing people with sporadic job opportunities or chronic medical conditions to work. 

Not everyone on Medicaid can work consistently, nor can they necessarily navigate the mountains of red tape that work requirements entail. “The evidence has been clear that when we take (health insurance) away from people, it doesn’t help them get jobs,” Sharon Parrott, President of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, told NPR.  “In fact, losing that health care can lead people to have worse health outcomes and be less able to engage in the labor market.”  

While Republicans insist on slashing spending for lower-income and elderly Americans, they propose to shower the wealthy with yet more favors. The House GOP debt ceiling plan would slash money allocated to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to crack down on wealthy tax cheats — literally making it easier for their rich donors to continue underpaying taxes. At the same time, Republicans claiming to be gravely concerned about federal red ink refuse to consider scaling back the 2017 Trump/GOP tax cuts, which added $2 trillion to the nation’s debt with little benefit for working people.  

There is no guarantee that Speaker McCarthy’s plan will garner enough Republican support to pass the House. Even if the GOP debt ceiling bill does pass, the Democratic-controlled Senate likely will reject Republican demands for massive spending cuts. President Biden has pledged not to negotiate at all, insisting on a clean bill to lift the debt ceiling. No matter, Speaker McCarthy is playing a dangerous game by risking a federal default. (The last time Republicans pushed this issue to the brink, the United States’ credit rating was downgraded because of the threat of a default.)   

A default would hit seniors especially hard because it could jeopardize the payment of Social Security and Medicare benefits. Even a short delay in payments would be a burden for the millions of Americans who rely on their earned benefits to cover out-of-pocket health care expenses, food, rent and utilities. In fact, almost two-thirds of beneficiaries depend on Social Security for half of their income and 40 percent rely on their benefits for 90 percent or more of their income.  

Republicans — who traditionally receive the majority of the senior vote — claim to support Social Security and Medicare. But taking any action that risks the payment of benefits (or customer service at the SSA) is not standing up for seniors. Neither is cutting Medicaid, food stamps, energy assistance, or any of the other myriad programs that retirees depend on to make ends meet. More fundamentally, risking an economic recession and threatening the financial security of Americans of all ages would be a failure of Congress to fulfill its duty.  

Here’s what we and our fellow seniors’ advocates demand: that House Republicans do their jobs and lift the debt ceiling without conditions. Hands-off of our enormously successful social insurance and safety net programs. Stop holding our economy hostage to the demands of the MAGA minority. Americans have plenty of real problems to handle. This one is wholly manufactured by the House GOP.

Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. He is former staff director of the Senate Special Committee on Aging. 

Tags Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Social Security

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File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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