Senate Concurrent Resolution 15- Expressing the Sense of Congress that the Chained Consumer Price Index Should Not Be Use to Calculate Cost-Of-Living Adjustments for Social Security or Veterans Benefits, or to Increase the Tax Burden on Low- and Middle-Income Taxpayers

Floor Speech

Date: April 24, 2013
Location: Washington, DC


Mr. SANDERS. I want to thank my colleague Senator Harkin not only for his fight for seniors and disabled vets on this issue but for his long career in fighting for those people who often do not have a voice here in Washington. The time has come for the Senate to send a very loud and clear message to the American people. It is the message Senator Harkin has just articulated, that is, we are not going to balance the budget on the backs of the elderly, on the backs of disabled veterans, on the backs of those people who are already, in the midst of this terrible recession, hurting so much.

As chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, let me make it very clear that I will do everything I can to make sure we are not balancing the budget on the backs of disabled veterans, men and women who have lost their arms, their legs, and their eyesight defending this country. That is morally unacceptable.

The chained CPI--and this is an important point to make. Sometimes you hear the crescendo inside the beltway, and all of the lobbyists talking: This is the right way to go. But as Senator Harkin mentioned, go across America, from Iowa to Vermont, California to Maine, the American people are saying in poll after poll: No, do not cut Social Security. Do not cut benefits for disabled vets.

The organizations that represent tens of millions of people are saying the same thing. The American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the Gold Star Wives, the Disabled American Veterans, they are on record--and I have submitted their testimony into the Congressional Record--they are in opposition to this chained CPI.

But it is not just veterans organizations. The chained CPI is opposed by every major senior citizens group in this country--the AARP, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, the Alliance of Retired Americans, and other groups. The chained CPI is opposed by every major trade union in America, including the AFL-CIO. The chained CPI is opposed by every major disability group in the country. It is opposed by the National Organization for Women because they understand that cutting Social Security impacts women more than it does men.

Maybe once in a while the Senate might want to listen to ordinary Americans, people who do not have well-paid lobbyists, people who do not own the local newspapers, and do what is right for the American people. There are some who believe that lowering cost-of-living adjustments, COLAs, through the adoption of a so-called chained CPI would be a minor tweak in benefits, hardly worth discussing.

But let's be clear. For millions of disabled veterans and seniors living on fixed incomes, the chained CPI is not a minor tweak. It is a significant benefit cut that will make it harder for permanently disabled veterans and the elderly to feed their families, heat their homes, pay for their prescription drugs, and make ends meet. This misguided proposal must be vigorously opposed.

What I find truly disturbing is that folks such as Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and my Republican colleagues who refer to the chained CPI as ``a more accurate measure of inflation.'' That is their argument.

Senator Harkin, when I speak to seniors in Vermont and I tell them there are some people in Washington who think the current COLAs are too generous, do you know what invariably happens? They start laughing. They should laugh. Two out of the last 4 years they got zero. I think the last COLA was 1.7 percent. There are some in Washington who think that is too generous.

I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record a statement from 250 Ph.D. economists and 50 social insurance experts who wrote:

No empirical basis for reducing the Social Security COLA.

No empirical basis.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the RECORD, as follows:


MR. SANDERS. This is what these 250 economists write:

As economists and social insurance experts, we agree that the annual Social Security cost of living adjustment should be based on the most accurate measure possible of the impact of inflation on beneficiaries. For this reason, we oppose proposals to reduce the Social Security COLA by tying it to a chained consumer price index. Arguments in favor of reducing the COLA are premised on the assumption that current COLA overcorrects for inflation. However, it is just as likely that the current COLA fails to keep up with rising costs confronting elderly and disabled beneficiaries.

The reason for that is pretty clear. If you are a senior citizen or disabled vet, the likelihood is you are not buying iPads or flat-screen TVs or other types of things such as that. What are you buying? You are buying health care, you are buying prescription drugs, you are trying to heat your home. For seniors' purchasing habits, in many ways inflation has been higher, not lower, than general inflation. Senator Harkin made reference to this.

Let's be very clear. There are millions and millions of seniors who are economically struggling, struggling to keep their heads above water to buy the prescription drugs they need, to pay for the health care costs they need, to keep their homes warm in States such as Vermont or Iowa in the winter.

Nearly one-quarter of seniors depend on Social Security benefits for 100 percent of their income. Two-thirds depend on Social Security for a majority of their income. We are talking, and I hear from the White House and elsewhere, they are going to protect the poorest of the poor. Well, to my mind, when someone in Vermont is trying to get by on $15,000 a year, that person needs protection. Anyone who thinks that is a lot of money clearly does not have any sense of what is going on in the real world.

According to the Social Security Administration, under the administration's chained CPI proposal, average 65-year-old retirees would lose $658 a year in Social Security benefits by their 75th birthday, a cumulative loss of over $4,500. Once again, I understand that people here go for lunch, take a few friends out, you can spend $600. But for senior citizens struggling on $14,000 or $15,000 a year, $658 dollars is a lot of money and means the loss, if you do not have that money, of a very basic need.

For veterans, if we go in the route of the chained CPI, disability benefits for veterans at age 30, they would have their benefits reduced by $1,425 a year; at age 45, $2,300 a year; at age 55, $3,200 a year; at age 65, benefits for surviving spouses, the wives who lost their husbands in Iraq and Afghanistan, and their kids would also be cut.

I think as a Senate, as a Congress, we should take a deep, deep breath, if we think we should be balancing the budget on those people who have already given so much to this country.

Let me conclude by again making the point Senator Harkin so ably made. Many of us want to make sure Social Security is strong not just for the next 20 years in which it can pay out all benefits but for the next 75 years. The way to do that is not to cut benefits; the way to do that is exactly as Senator Harkin and I and many other people have suggested--that is, understanding that there is something absurd when somebody who makes $5 million a year contributes the same exact amount of money into the Social Security trust fund as somebody who makes $113,000 a year.

There are different ways to approach that issue, but by lifting the cap--and do it one way or the other--we can make Social Security solvent for the next 75 years for our kids and for our grandchildren.

The last point--and Senator Harkin has been a leader on this issue--pointing out about how many Americans have lost their pensions. We are probably in worse shape than at any time in modern history for the average person to go into retirement. Social Security is and has been the pillar for those people. They have lost their pensions, and their 401(k)s have also been troubled. Social Security has been there for the last 75-plus years in good times and bad times. It paid out every nickel owed to every eligible American.

People are nervous about their retirements. Let's stand united and say we are not going to cut Social Security benefits for seniors or disabled vets. There are other ways to go forward and make sure Social Security is strong for the next 75 years.

I yield to the Senator from Iowa.


Mr. SANDERS. That is a very important question, and let me answer it in several ways. First thought: let's be clear, we have some colleagues in the House and Senate who believe not just that you should privatize Social Security, not just that you should cut Social Security, they believe the concept of government assistance in terms of retirement or government programs in terms of health care, they believe they are unconstitutional. They don't believe the government should be there. If you are elderly and you have no health care, sorry, you are on your own. That is No. 1.

There is a philosophical belief on the part of some that what government does should be very limited and that we should not be there to make sure that when the elderly people reach retirement age, they have security.

The second point is about the consistently--and this has gone on for years--the long-term opposition to Social Security. Does the Senator know what it is about? It is because Social Security has worked so well. If you hold the belief that the government is terrible, the government is awful, and the government can't do anything, and if there is a program that for 77 years has paid every nickel owed to every eligible American, has very modest administrative costs, and is very popular among the American people, and you don't believe in government, that is a bad thing. They have to start cutting it and doing away with it.

The third point I would make--again, no secret here--is that we have a significant deficit, and we have choices to make as to how we deal with the deficit.

When we lose $100 billion every single year because corporations stash their money in the Cayman Islands and in other tax havens, maybe we might want to ask them to start paying their fair share of taxes rather than cutting Social Security. But we have colleagues who are much more interested in the well-being and the profits of large corporations than they are in the needs of seniors.

Those are some of my answers.


Mr. SANDERS. That is right. I think the point has to be made--and I see Senator Durbin on the floor as well, and he has made this point--that we can argue about how we go forward on Social Security, but we should be clear: Social Security hasn't contributed a nickel to the deficit because it is funded by the independent payroll tax.

So it is a reasonable question as to how we make Social Security solvent for 75 years rather than just the next 20 years. That is a good debate. The Senator and I have similar ideas on how we should tackle that issue. But it should not be considered as part of the deficit reduction effort. And it disturbs me very much because the administration has acknowledged that reality and we have heard them over the years say: Yes, we want to deal with Social Security but not part of deficit reduction. It bothers me that they have now injected Social Security into the deficit reduction debate.


Mr. SANDERS. I would say the Senator makes a very good point. And I often point out to my Republican friends that I think you are looking at yourself and me as some of the major deficit hawks.

Our friends today who want to cut Social Security in the name of deficit reduction apparently didn't have a problem with the deficit when they went to war in Iraq and Afghanistan without paying for those wars and when they gave huge tax breaks to the wealthiest people in this country without offsetting those tax breaks.