Seniors urge Congress to protect Social Security, Medicare ahead of State of the Union

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President Joe Biden speaks about protecting Social Security, Medicare, and lowering prescription drug costs, during a visit to OB Johnson Park and Community Center, in Hallandale Beach, Florida, on Nov. 1, 2022.

Kevin Lamarque | Reuters

In the runup to Tuesday’s State of the Union address, AARP has encouraged its members, ages 50 and over, to send a message to President Joe Biden: “Urge Congress to keep their hands off our Social Security and Medicare.”

Members can sign a predrafted letter asking Biden to demand lawmakers strengthen Social Security and Medicare, and support caregivers, in the annual speech.

The response so far has been “overwhelming,” with about 82,000 letters sent in the past week, according to Bill Sweeney, senior vice president of government affairs at AARP.

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“This is a powerful message and our members are absolutely laser-focused on protecting Social Security and Medicare,” Sweeney said.

Social Security and the debt ceiling debate

The future of Social Security and Medicare have increasingly come up in the debate around the debt ceiling.

In January the U.S. hit the debt limit, which represents the total amount the government can borrow to meet its obligations, and since then it has turned to “extraordinary measures” to continue making payments.

It is up to Congress to agree to raise or eliminate the debt ceiling to prevent an unprecedented default on the country’s debt.

As part of the negotiations, lawmakers may look to cut costs. Both Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy have vowed to keep changes to Social Security and Medicare off the table.

Debt ceiling drama: What we need to know

However, House Republicans’ budget plan calls for cuts to the programs, such as raising the retirement age or changing the way the annual Social Security cost-of-living adjustment is calculated.

Those changes may not be included in the debt ceiling negotiations.

But efforts to create commissions to examine the programs’ futures may move forward as part of a deal, which has set off vigorous debate ahead of the State of the Union.

“The American people want more jobs and lower costs, not a death panel for Medicare and Social Security,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement issued this week.

These are benefits that people have earned, and they should expect that Congress and the president will work together to protect those benefits.

Bill Sweeney

senior vice president of government affairs at AARP

The term “death panel” refers to the rescue committees proposed in the bipartisan TRUST Act, which calls for committees to be formed to address each of the country’s ailing trust funds.

That would include Social Security’s pension and disability, Medicare Part A and highway trust funds.

Social Security’s funds are projected to pay full benefits until 2035, at which point just 80% of the monthly checks will be payable.

Medicare’s Part A trust fund, which covers hospital care, is projected to pay full benefits until 2028, at which point 90% of benefits will be payable.

Temporary commissions may address solvency

Halfpoint Images | Moment | Getty Images

Another bill, the Bipartisan Social Security Commission Act, would seek to form temporary commissions to address the solvency of the program’s funds under expedited procedures.

Whether such committees or commissions are necessary to shore up Social Security’s trust funds is a topic of fierce debate among experts.

“The White House needs to stop demagoguing this issue and start taking looming insolvency seriously,” Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, said in a statement Monday.

“Attacking a bipartisan idea as a ‘death panel’ demonstrates a lack of seriousness on this important issue,” MacGuineas said, in reference to Bates’ comments.

Yet others fear creating commissions may fast-track changes that the public would not have the opportunity to fully vet.

“AARP doesn’t support these sorts of commissions to do the job that Congress is there to do,” Sweeney said.

Existing congressional committees — specifically the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee — are already equipped to handle these issues with a bipartisan approach, Sweeney said.

Social Security changes require bipartisan support

Any changes to Social Security’s trust funds would require 60 votes in the Senate by law, and therefore require both parties to come together, he noted.

“For Congress to suggest that this is the reason we have a debt ceiling problem and we should look at these programs to cut, it’s just really outrageous,” Sweeney said.

“These are benefits that people have earned, and they should expect that Congress and the president will work together to protect those benefits,” he said.

Biden is expected to emphasize the importance of strengthening Social Security and Medicare in his State of the Union address, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Monday.

The speech is set to include previews of the budget Biden plans to send to Congress on March 9, which includes funding for those programs.

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