Harkin urges tough stance in "fiscal cliff" negotiations

Senator Tom Harkin and several other Congressional Democrats spoke out today against cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits as part of any broad deficit-reduction agreement.

Harkin is one of 29 U.S. Senate Democrats who signed an open letter in September opposing “Social Security cuts for future or current beneficiaries in any deficit reduction package.”

Social Security has not contributed to the deficit or to the national debt, the senators said. The program that benefits more than 50 million retirees, widows, widowers, orphans and disabled Americans has a $2.7 trillion surplus and, according to actuaries, will be able to pay every benefit owed to every eligible recipient for the next 21 years.

“Contrary to some claims, Social Security is not the cause of our nation’s deficit problem. Not only does the program operate independently, but it is prohibited from borrowing,” the letter said.

“Even though Social Security operates in a fiscally responsible manner, some still advocate deep benefit cuts and seem convinced that Social Security hands out lavish welfare checks. But Social Security is not welfare. Seniors earned their benefits by working and paying into the system,” the letter added.

Social Security has not contributed to deficits because it has a dedicated funding stream. Workers and employers each pay half of a 12.4 percent payroll tax on the first $110,100 of a worker’s wages. The tax rate for employees was reduced to 4.2 percent in 2011 and 2012, but is scheduled to return to 6.2 percent in January.

Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, founded the Senate Defending Social Security Caucus. He convened a “Hands Off Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid Summit” in Washington today and noted that Social Security will be solvent forever if the cap on income subject to Social Security taxes is lifted.

Harkin spoke immediately after Sanders and pointed out that Americans just voted for having the people who got richer during the last decade pay their “fair share.” Harkin also warned against a “chained” Consumer Price Index, which he said another way to decrease benefits, especially for Americans in low-income tax brackets. This article explains the problem Harkin was talking about.

Speaking to reporters by telephone today,

Harkin said President Barack Obama and Democrats who control the Senate should hold fast to their demands for the expiration of tax cuts on high-income earners, and be willing to let the cuts expire for all earners and to allow deep spending cuts to take effect if they don’t get their way in the next few weeks.

“We need a fair and balanced approach,” Harkin said. “I hope we can get that accomplished, but I don’t think we should cave into unreasonable demands.” […]

In Harkin’s view, Democrats should be willing to let the country go over the fiscal cliff if Republicans decline to raise taxes because the effects wouldn’t be immediately damaging to the country, and provide leverage for a more favorable deal when Congress reconvenes early next year.

“No deal is better than a bad deal, because things will change after Jan. 1, the positions will change,” he said. “Quite frankly, if we don’t get a good deal, we’ll just take it up in January or February.”

Harkin noted comments from investor Warren Buffett and media reports that the economy and financial markets would not be adversely affected by the failure to reach a deal by New Year’s.

Senator Harkin’s office provided this statement:

“The election last week presented the American people with a choice between two very different visions for our economy.   And, in that election, the American people spoke very clearly in support of an economic policy that puts the middle class first.  When it comes to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, the American people told us to protect and strengthen these programs, not cut them,” said Harkin.  “In the coming weeks and months as the Senate works to create jobs, strengthen the economy, and reduce the deficit and debt, we will stand firm against any misguided effort to cut these programs that undergird the middle class.”

I agree with Harkin’s position 100 percent. The big question is whether he and other Congressional Democrats will stand up to President Barack Obama if the president cuts a “grand bargain” with Congressional Republicans. During the manufactured crisis over raising the debt ceiling in the summer of 2011, Obama made clear that he would be happy to put Social Security and Medicare on the table, along with large domestic spending cuts, in exchange for minimal tax increases on the wealthy. That deal only fell apart because House Speaker John Boehner couldn’t deliver enough votes from the House GOP caucus.

Share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: Storm Lake Times editor Art Cullen wrote in a November 14 editorial,

The Senate majority has been in a defensive crouch. It is time for Harkin to lead an offensive on behalf of those who have no Super PACs to speak for them. It is time for the Senate to stand up for those poor inner-city denizens who waited in line for six hours or more to vote for an American who looks out for everyone. It is an opportunity to move forward with more health care options, better nutrition programs and a renewed commitment to low-cost post-secondary education for everyone. And, it is time to erect a brick wall so high around Social Security and Medicare that these Wall Street prevaricators never can scale it.

The voters have provided the mandate. Just 14% in exit polls think deficit reduction is a priority. Growing better jobs right here at home was Numero Uno. More than 70% of those polled believe in providing a legal pathway to citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants. A solid majority of voters said that the most fortunate among us have an obligation to help the least fortunate by returning to the Clinton-era tax rates. What more mandate does a leader need?

Tom Harkin has been a champion for the disabled. He led the way on federal commitment to renewable energy that in large part put us in the sweet spot where we sit today. Net farm income this year will be double what it was in 2006. He was fighting for healthier nutrition programs long before Michelle Obama came along.

We figure Harkin has two years left in a distinguished political career of standing up for the little guy, leaving the ladder of opportunity there for the next person. His term will be up, and Harkin knows that there are younger progressives ready to pick up where he leaves off.

So this is Tom Harkin’s time to finish the legacy.

He has the forum with the Senate HELP Committee. He is tight with Obama if for no other reason than introducing the Illinoisan to all-important Iowans at great risk of angering the Clintons and Vilsacks. Harkin, as always, seized the moment with the young senator with big ears and a funny name. He needs to see and seize the moment to convince America to summon its best angels and build on the great progressive framework founded by Teddy Roosevelt. It will determine whether he goes down in history as a lion of the Senate or a just an amiable and reliable Democrat from Iowa.

  • Thank you, Tom.

    Pete Peterson would not be pouring his millions into funding the “Fix the Debt” campaign if Big Money did not stand to benefit from the backroom deals that people like Durbin, Warner, Hoyer et al are planning for the peasants. Tom Harkin is among the few people who are opposing this sweet deal for Wall Street, which has lusted after the flowing river of retirement funds within Social Security for decades.

    There is starting to be some attention to a paper by two Federal Reserve analysts that eviscerates the CBO assumptions on future health care costs.  Why does that matter?  Because exploding costs for Medicare are the primary basis for the argument, beloved by Deficit Hawks, that we must cut now to avoid catastrophe later. If the CBO assumptions are wrong, then all this Grand Bargain nonsense is completely unnecessary.

    Here are links to the paper, and to a series of posts Yves Smith has written on the paper and the CBO’s effort to shut her up.







    Bill Black also wrote about this yesterday:


  • The Vilsacks seem OK with Tom Harkin now

    He is tight with Obama if for no other reason than introducing the Illinoisan to all-important Iowans at great risk of angering the Clintons and Vilsacks.

    Saturday before the election, Sen. Harkin stopped by our GOTV office in Carroll along with Christie and Tom Vilsack.

    • he was doing lots of events

      for Democratic Iowa House and Senate candidates. I doubt he was avoiding Vilsack–maybe she thought it wouldn’t be helpful to have him campaigning with her in public.

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