The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare rallied at the White House on April 9, 2013, to protest a provision of the president’s budget proposal.
Max Richtman stood in the bright sunshine steps from the White House Tuesday, waiting for his turn on the bullhorn to assail a policy of a president he usually agrees with.
Leaders of a half dozen liberal and progressive groups — including Richtman’s National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare — shouted to supporters that President Barack Obama’s call in his budget to reduce cost-of-living adjustments to Social Security and other federal benefits amounted to economic assault on senior citizens.
And they rolled out crates of petitions with 2 million signatures of people who agree with them.
“It was exhilarating,” Richtman told the NewsHour on Wednesday. “It was encouraging to realize that a coalition could put together a couple million signatures on petitions and pull an event like that together in front of the White House.”
Richtman says he and other Social Security advocates are just getting started.
“This step was the first step in a process to try to derail that portion of the president’s budget,” he said. “There are many good things in the budget — this [the chained CPI] should not be in there.”
The chained Consumer Price Index takes into account that when prices rise on some things, consumers react by seeking out less expensive alternative products and services. That means beneficiaries can get the same purchasing power with a smaller benefit check.
The president proposes to adopt chained CPI and reduce Social Security outlays by $130 billion over 10 years.
But Richtman says senior citizens aren’t like the typical urban consumer on whom chained CPI behavior is based.
“People we’re talking about don’t have the luxury of other income in many cases and have the kinds of needs that you can’t substitute. If you need dental care, which is not covered by Medicare, you need it. You can’t decide to go see a podiatrist instead. If you need glasses because you can’t see any more and you need some strong glasses, you need to get glasses. You can’t substitute something else for that,” Richtman argues.
“Seniors are more limited and restricted in their mobility and their choices. This is an approach to figuring out the COLA [cost-of-living adjustment] that really has only one purpose and that is to cut the benefit.”
Another purpose of the chained CPI proposal — one acknowledged by the White House — is to encourage Congressional Republicans to agree to the president’s call for tax increases as part of further budget talks.
“The inclusion of entitlement reform, specifically chained CPI … comes at the specific behest and request of Republican leaders,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters Thursday. “It is the responsible thing to do to try to find common ground. To find common ground you need to meet the other side halfway. You need to accept you’re not going to get everything you want. You need to accept things that the other side wants.”
Mr. Obama has said he dislikes the chained CPI change and in fact promised in the past not to adopt such a measure.
Some critics of chained CPI among congressional Democrats say proposing it nonetheless may be useful toward getting bipartisan negotiations going.
Richtman sees it another way.
“You know, it’s sad when it seems that we — the progressive community, defenders of Social Security — have gotten to the point where we almost have to rely on Republican intransigence to keep anything bad from happening, ” he said.
And Richtman says his and other groups will keep trying to get seniors’ attention on chained CPI, to prevent it from coming closer to reality.
“I’ve done hundreds of town hall meetings, mostly with members of Congress. And [seniors] know the term COLA almost as well as they know Social Security. And they look every fall for the announcement of what that will be because it’s so important to– not living lavishly, but just getting by,” said Richtman.
“The current formula understates inflation as it affects seniors’ purchasing habits. And this new formula is even more flawed, will lead to a lower COLA, smaller benefits — much smaller — and growing over time.”
And he added, “I would not want to be the politician who goes out to a senior town hall meeting and says, we decided that COLA you’ve been getting — that $5, $7, $9, $10 a year some years — that’s too generous, that you’re getting too much money.”