To ward off a push for Social Security cuts in the next Congress, Democrats may need a bloc of Senate votes to prevent another bipartisan commission from trying to slash the program. This coming Tuesday, the issue of austerity is on the ballot in the Massachusetts Senate race as one of the candidates — Rep. Joe Kennedy III — once lauded a framework to cut Social Security and Medicare as “the right blueprint forward.”
In August 2012, just three years after the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression up to that point, Kennedy was a first-time congressional candidate. During a debate hosted by the Martin Institute at Stonehill College, Kennedy told moderators that something had to be done about the debt and deficit and that the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan had gotten it more or less right. That plan — which came out of a White House commission touted by Vice President Joe Biden — proposed cuts to Social Security, along with Medicare and Medicaid.
“We’ve got a jobs crisis, and we’ve got a debt problem, and the number one issue has to be getting people back to work,” Kennedy told the moderator when asked what he thought about the plan. “Part of that challenge, though, is the uncertainty that businesses, individuals, corporations are facing with the current tax structure because so many businesses — it’s hard to ask government to say, ‘There’s hundreds of billions of dollars on the sideline, let’s get that back into the system,’ when they don’t know what the tax rate is going to be. The uncertainty out there is forcing all that money to be kept on the sideline.”
Kennedy called for a plan that was a “balanced mix of revenue increases and spending cuts.”
“Something along the lines of Simpson-Bowles,” he said. “Something that recognizes that you’re not going to tax your way out of this. We don’t have that much money. You’re not going to cut spending out of this without completely changing what I believe in — gutting [what] the fundamental responsibilities of the government are. You’re going to need a balanced mix of both.”
Kennedy said it was on Congress and the president “to come up with a balanced approach that markets have faith in, that people believe in, that moves our country forward, and I think Simpson-Bowles put forth one framework that could provide a blueprint for that.”
Pressed on the matter, Kennedy did clarify that he took issue with the ratio of spending cuts to revenue increases and the Social Security cuts included in the plan, noting that the program “does pay out of its own trust fund.”
“I think the overall framework of Simpson-Bowles probably is the right blueprint forward,” he said. “There are parts of Simpson-Bowles that I certainly did not agree with. Also, I think what’s interesting about Simpson-Bowles, though, is that nobody agreed with every part of it, right? And when you have a plan that everybody disagrees with, it probably means one of two things: One, you got it really wrong, or you got pretty much the right combination, because you’re asking everybody to give something that they don’t want. And I believe that in these tough fiscal times, the way that we’re gonna get out of this is by asking everybody to have to contribute forward.”
Simpson-Bowles was the product of negotiations between the Obama White House and congressional Republicans ahead of the 2010 midterms. With the election looming and the GOP pushing doomsday predictions about the deficit, the president sought a middle ground. In February that year, Barack Obama signed an executive order creating the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, which was run by former Wyoming Republican senator Alan Simpson, a proponent of cuts to and privatization of Social Security, to cochair the commission.
In 2013, a majority of congressional Democrats asked Obama to oppose any cuts to Social Security in a letter signed by then-representative Ed Markey, but not by Kennedy.
In the years since Kennedy’s first campaign, Democratic politics has changed. Gone are the days when Joe Biden could receive accolades for standing on the floor of the Senate professing his desire to freeze all federal spending, including Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and veterans’ benefits. Democratic voters today overwhelmingly support major government programs like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal — two policies Kennedy has aligned himself with for his Senate run.
And yet, austerity is alive and well in Washington. One of the first things Nancy Pelosi did after becoming House Speaker again in 2019 was implement a so-called PAYGO rule, requiring new spending increases be offset by spending cuts. Senator Mitt Romney has put forward new deficit reduction legislation that critics say would fast-track cuts to Social Security. Marketed as an effort to “strengthen” the program and keep it solvent for the next generation, the proposal has four Democratic cosponsors and support from Alan Simpson.
Meanwhile, some close to Biden have recently begun suggesting that if elected, the former vice president will hew to a more conservative path if he wins the election.
On Friday, a Politico article quoted former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who said Biden would “govern like [Bill] Clinton in terms of consensus-building.” That same day, former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel told CNBC that 2020 would be the “year of the Biden Republican,” and argued that now was the time to permanently realign GOP voters.
The day before, following a TMI report, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives took aim at the longtime Biden ally heading his transition team, Ted Kaufman, after he said that a Biden administration would “be limited” by the deficits Trump has created. “When we get in, the pantry is going to be bare,” he explained. “When you see what Trump’s done to the deficit . . . forget about COVID-19, all the deficits that he built with the incredible tax cuts. So we’re going to be limited.”
The Biden campaign later tried to walk Kaufman’s comments back, with a spokesperson saying that “there will of course be stimulus spending in the short term to repair the historic damage Donald Trump has done to our economy and to build back better.”