Over 100 of 193 House Democrats along with several potential 2020 presidential candidates in the Senate announced Thursday they’re forming the Expand Social Security Caucus to organize around not just preserving Social Security but increasing the benefits it pays out.
The creation of the caucus and the high rate of membership represents yet another leftward shift for the Democratic Party since Donald Trump’s 2016 victory. The Social Security debate among Democrats in Congress has changed from liberals arguing whether they can stomach any cuts to liberals arguing over how many more benefits they should demand.
The main Social Security expansion bill in the House from Rep. John Larson of Connecticut had only 54 co-sponsors when it was introduced in 2015, and it now has 173 (174 expected by week’s end, according to his office). If Democrats win back control of Congress in November, Larson, a co-chair of the caucus, would likely become the chairman of the Social Security subcommittee, which would give him the power to initiate legislative action.
“I’ve seen a change,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said of her Democratic colleagues' approach to the issue. “It’s become increasingly clear that [seniors] are facing a retirement crisis.” Warren has been arguing for the expansion of Social Security since shortly after she arrived in the Senate in 2013 and will co-chair the Senate side of the caucus along with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
Even the self-styled center-left think tank Third Way, which in 2013 criticized proposals to expand Social Security as “populist political and economic fantasy,” has recently been promoting a “universal private retirement program.” The plan supplements Social Security through a minimum pension fund paid into by employers. “Our feeling is that there just needs to be a new social contract and one of those things is retirement,” Jim Kessler, who is the think tank’s senior vice president for policy, told VICE News.
Expanding Social Security joins other unapologetically progressive proposals like Medicare for All and debt-free college that have been gaining wider acceptance among Democrats in Congress as the party’s left-wing increasingly becomes its mainstream.
"It wasn't long ago that the billionaire class and their editorial-board buddies would swear up and down that the very sensible thing to do was to reach into people's pockets and steal their money by cutting their Social Security,” said Alex Lawson, the executive director of Social Security Works, the longtime advocate for expanding Social Security that helped launch the caucus.
The reasons for the shift aren’t immediately clear. Some attribute it to Democrats trying to find an unambiguous populist message that will cut through to possible voters, not just in 2018 but in 2020 as well. Others argue that retirement poverty has reached such a crisis level that inaction is no longer an option. And a few even argue that Donald Trump has helped reframe the debate by pledging to never cut Social Security after Republican Party leaders had repeatedly attempted to do so over the past several decades.
“I have to give the president credit because I think he is having an effect on his colleagues,” said Larson. “I think we are going to be able to work with him on this if we win the majority. It’s an area of rapport.”
Regardless of the reasons for the change, it exemplifies how unmoored American politics has become from the debates of recent decades.
Just seven years ago, in the summer of 2011, Barack Obama and many Democratic members of Congress were willing to make cuts to Social Security benefits in exchange for Republicans approving tax hikes on the wealthy as part of a so-called “Grand Bargain.” Back then, both sides said they were concerned about the ballooning national debt, which stood at nearly $15 trillion.
Third Way was among those aggressively lobbying the president and congressional Democrats to make the deal. “There was a moment when something could get done, and that moment disappeared,” said Kessler.
The national debt is now at over $20 trillion and the Trump administration forecasts a $1 trillion deficit the next fiscal year that begins in October after the Republican-led Congress passed large tax cuts last December. Chiefs of staffs to Republican senators recently told a group of reporters that no serious conversations are occurring on tackling the national debt, citing a lack of political will.
The Trump administration projects that Social Security will remain solvent until at least 2034, but Larson is concerned that making the recent tax cuts permanent—which congressional Republicans are trying to do—could further starve the program of needed revenues and force unnecessary cuts later. Larson in particular spells out how the federal government would pay for his proposed expansion of Social Security benefits, largely through some tax hikes.
But Republicans' lack of concern about the debt has also prompted a wave of proposals from the Left, some of which aren’t paid for.
“After the Republicans did the $1.5 trillion in unpaid-for tax cuts, and as we’re doing a bipartisan appropriations bill — which I support — which is also an increase in federal spending [that’s] unpaid for, I just reject the idea that only progressive ideas have to be paid for,” Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii told Vox earlier this year. “ We can work on that as we go through the process, but I think it’s a trap.”
Cover: U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren speaks at a rally held for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Gonzalez (L) and congressional Democratic candidate Ayanna Pressley (2nd L) on September 9, 2018 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images)