Sanders opening statement at budget hearing on saving and expanding Social Security

Vermont Business Magazine Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, Thursday delivered an opening statement at the committee's hearing titled “Saving Social Security: Expanding Benefits and Demanding the Wealthy Pay Their Fair Share or Cutting Benefits and Increasing Retirement Anxiety.”

The hearing is livestreamed on the Budget Committee’s website and Sanders’ social media pages.

Sanders’ remarks, as prepared for delivery, are below:

I call this hearing to order. Let me thank our panelists and committee members for being with us today.

My understanding is that Ranking Member Graham has a scheduling conflict and will be making his opening statement after our witnesses testify.

Social Security is one of the most popular and successful government programs in the history of our country.

For more than 80 years, through good times and bad, Social Security has paid out every benefit owed to every eligible American on time and without delay.

Not once over more than eight decades of operation - not during the pandemic, not during the 2008 Wall Street crash - has anyone received a letter or phone call from the Social Security Administration saying: “Sorry, the economy is not doing so well, we need to cut your benefits.” That is a record we should all be very proud of as a nation.

Today, while many people take Social Security for granted, let us remember.

Before Social Security was created in 1935, about half of our nation’s seniors were living in poverty. Today, though still too high, the senior poverty rate is just 8.9 percent.

Without Social Security it is estimated that some 22 million Americans, including more than 16 million senior citizens, would be living in poverty.

Yet, despite this success, tens of millions of senior citizens are still struggling to make ends meet and many older workers are scared to death that they will never be able to retire with any shred of dignity.

According to the most recent data, 12 percent of seniors in America are trying to live on an income of less than $10,000 a year. I don’t quite know how they are able to do that. Further, 55 percent of seniors are trying survive on less than $25,000 a year.

Think about that for a moment. How do you pay the rent, put food on the table and pay for the basic necessities of life on just $10,000 or $20,000 a year? The answer is many cannot. In the richest country in the history of the world, that is a national disgrace.

Adding insult to injury, about half of older Americans – those who are 55 and older – have no retirement savings, while the average Social Security benefit today isless than $1,540 a month.

Now, despite what you may have heard from some politicians, Social Security is not going broke.

Social Security has a $2.85 trillion surplus in its trust fund and can pay out every benefit owed to every eligible American for the next 13 years.

After that, the Social Security Administration estimates that there will be enough funding available to pay 80 percent of promised benefits.

Given this reality, our job is not to cut Social Security or raise the retirement age as many of my Republican colleagues want to do. Our job is to expand Social Security so that everyone in America can retire with the dignity that they deserve and every person with a disability can retire with the security that they need.

And that’s what the Social Security Expansion Act that I have introduced today with Senators Warren, Whitehouse, Merkley, Van Hollen, Padilla, Booker and Gillibrand is all about.

This legislation has been endorsed by the AFL-CIO, the Alliance for Retired Americans, Social Security Works, the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, the American Federation of Teachers, the Economic Policy Institute, the National Education Association, the National Organization for Women, Public Citizen and dozens of other groups representing tens of millions of senior citizens, working families and people with disabilities.

According to a letter that I received from the Social Security Administration this morning, this legislation will fully fund Social Security for the next 75 years and expand benefits for senior citizens and people with disabilities.

How do we do that? Simple. At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, at a time when billionaires pay an effective tax rate lower than the average working person, at a time when the very richest people in this country are becoming much richer, this legislation demands that the wealthiest people in this country start paying their fair share of taxes.

Today, absurdly and unfairly, there is a cap on income subject to Social Security taxes. That cap is now $147,000 a year. What does that mean? It means that if you are a multi-billionaire you pay the same amount of money into Social Security as someone who makes $147,000 a year. It means that if you make $147,000 a year you pay 6.2% of your income in Social Security taxes. But if you make ten times more than that $1,470,000 you pay .6% of your income in Social Security taxes. That may make sense to somebody. It doesn’t make sense to me.

Our legislation applies the Social Security payroll tax on all income – including capital gains and dividends - for those who make over $250,000 a year.

Under this bill, 93.6 percent of households would not see their taxes go up by one penny. The tax increase in our legislation only applies to the wealthiest 6.4 percent of Americans – those who make over $250,000 a year.

Further, and importantly, under this bill, Social Security benefits would be increased by $2,400 a year for both new and existing recipients lifting millions of senior citizens out of poverty.

In addition, under this bill, we would increase COLAs for senior citizens by more accurately measuring the spending patterns for senior citizens through the Consumer Price Index for the Elderly (CPI-E).

Older Americans, by and large, are not going out on spending sprees buying big screen TVs, laptops, or the latest high-tech gadgets. Rather, they spend a disproportionate amount of their income on health care and prescription drugs and that would be reflected in the formula for calculating COLAs under this legislation.

Now one of the reasons I called this hearing is that there is a strong philosophical difference between many of us in the Democratic caucus and many in the Republican caucus as to the best way forward with regard to Social Security. While virtually everyone in the Democratic caucus is on record in support of expanding Social Security, the Republicans have taken a very different approach.

And I’m delighted that some of the Republicans, who have taken strong positions on this issue are on this committee and will explain where they’re coming from.

Earlier this year, Senator Rick Scott, the Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, released a plan that would sunset Social Security every five years, raise taxes on millions of senior citizens and jeopardize the guaranteed income of 65 million Americans who depend on Social Security.

Just a few months ago, the Republican Study Committee in the House introduced a plan that would raise the Social Security retirement age to 69 over the next 8 years and privatize Social Security by allowing employers to divert payroll tax dollars into less generous private retirement accounts.

Last year, Senator Romney, who has opposed raising taxes on the wealthy to strengthen Social Security, introduced legislation to form a committee to propose cuts to Social Security behind closed doors.

In 2020, Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell told Bloomberg reporter Steven Dennis that he “hopes to work with the next Democratic President to trim Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.”

In 2011, Senator Graham introduced legislation to raise the full retirement age to 70 by 2032 and index it to longevity.

Further, in 2003, Senator Graham introduced a bill that would have cut Social Security benefits for current wage earners by 27 percent according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Now, I don’t often quote Donald Trump, but let me tell you something. When Trump was campaigning for president in 2015 he was absolutely correct when he said: “Every Republican wants to do a big number on Social Security, they want to do it on Medicare, they want to do it on Medicaid.”

Well, let me be clear. We cannot allow that to happen. The vast majority of the American people understand that a moral society does not give tax breaks to billionaires, and then cut back on the needs of struggling seniors or people with disabilities.

In fact, 72 percent of Americans “support increasing, not cutting Social Security benefits by asking millionaires and billionaires to pay more into the system.”

Now, I know this is a radical idea for the United States Senate but maybe, just maybe, we might want to start listening to the overwhelming majority of the American people who want to expand Social Security and stop listening to right-wing billionaires who want to cut, privatize and dismantle it.

A great nation is not judged by the number of billionaires it has or by the quantity of its nuclear weapons. A great nation is judged by its compassion and how it treats the most vulnerable among us. And when we talk about the vulnerable, there is no group more vulnerable than senior citizens and people with disabilities.

Yes. The time has come to expand, not cut, Social Security.

WASHINGTON, June 9 – Senator Bernie Sanders