The Gang of Eight comprehensive immigration reform bill sets up a pretty long path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants — with a somewhat nasty catch. It will take about 13 years for immigrants to become full citizens, but for at least 10 of those years, they won’t be able to access any of the means-tested federal benefits they’re paying into. “Current restrictions preventing non-immigrants from accessing federal public benefits will also apply to lawful probationary immigrants,” the Gang of Eight said in a joint statement, a point Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) reiterated in stronger terms independently.
While visiting the annual Miami conference of the Hispanic Leadership Network, a conservative Latino organization, ThinkProgress asked several conference-goers whether they thought it was fair that immigrants on a pathway to citizenship weren’t able to access benefits that they were paying into. Here is what they said:
Republicans and Democrats agreed to increase the debt ceiling for three months at the end of January, but with another deadline approaching in May, the top Senate Republican is hinting that the GOP will again demand spending cuts in exchange for any increase.
That is par for the course for Republicans, who have repeatedly threatened to let the nation default on its obligations if President Obama and Senate Democrats don’t agree to cut spending, but this time, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) said the GOP will likely demand cuts to America’s entitlement programs — Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security — to agree to an increase in the borrowing limit, The Hill reports:
“Until we make our entitlement programs fit the demographics of our country, you can’t save America, you can’t save the healthcare system,” McConnell said. “There is no revenue solution, I would say to you.”
“We all anticipate that the president’s request of us to raise the debt ceiling, which we’ll probably do sometime this will generate another, hopefully, another discussion about solving the real problem,” he said.
Republicans continue to crow about entitlement reform, ignoring that Social Security is fully solvent for at least two decades, that Obama extended Medicare’s solvency by nine years as part of his sweeping healthcare law, and that at least one of the major reforms Republicans favor — raising the retirement age for Medicare enrollees — would do nothing to improve the program’s health. Meanwhile, the GOP refuses to actually put forth specific entitlement reform plans that would do anything other than end the programs as they exist today.
Using the debt ceiling to extract such cuts is an even less reasonable position, given the pain the GOP’s debt intransigence has already inflicted on the economy. The 2011 debt fight led to increased borrowing costs, hamperedjob growth for months, and created the automatic budget cuts that went into effect at the beginning of March — all of which burdened an economy that is still struggling to fully recover from the Great Recession. That brinksmanship has led leading policymakers like Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, as well as a vast majority of economists, to call for the abolition of the statutory debt limit.
Republicans in Congress and on the presidential campaign trail have spent much of the year trying to gut social safety net programs vital to the livelihood of America’s poor and elderly citizens. From House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) Medicare-ending budget plan to multiple proposals from the GOP’s presidential candidates, conservatives have sought to extract massive cuts from important programs, even while supplying the wealthiest Americans with massive tax cuts.
But Americans continue to rely heavily on safety net programs to stay afloat, according to a new report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP). Without the permanent safety net programs (including Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and various assistance programs) and temporary programs included in the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (which Republicans have falsely claimed didn’t work), more than a quarter of the country’s population would have fallen beneath the poverty line in 2010, CBPP says:
Our report also shows that if the government safety net as a whole — these temporary initiatives (all were featured in the 2009 Recovery Act) plus safety-net policies already in place when the recession hit — hadn’t existed in 2010, the poverty rate would have been 28.6 percent, nearly twice the actual 15.5 percent.
CBPP’s report comes on the heels of newly-refined poverty measures from the Census Bureau that painted an even bleaker picture of American poverty. According to the new measure, 16 percent of the population, or approximately 49.1 million Americans, lived in poverty in 2010, up from 46.2 million found in the official report released in September. The bulk of that difference comes from seniors, the very people who rely most on social safety net programs. Because the alternative measure takes out-of-pocket medical expenses into account, it found that nearly 16 percent of those over age 65 lived in poverty in 2010, up from 9 percent in the September report.
During an interview with Bloomberg News’ Al Hunt, 2012 GOP presidential contender Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) said that she envisions entitlement reforms that go well beyond what House Republicans approved in their budget, written by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-WI). While Ryan is always careful to say that his plans would not affect those “near” retirement, which he defines at 55 or older, Bachmann believes that those whose retirement is imminent should be subjected to cuts:
BACHMANN: Anyone who is currently a senior citizen on entitlement benefits, they will receive them. We’ll be crystal-clear. But beyond that, we will reform the entitlement programs now, not five years from now, not 26 years from now, now. Anyone who is not yet on those programs, we’re going to change them.
HUNT: So if anyone’s 62 or 63, they would face Medicare cuts now?
BACHMANN: There would be changes in the entitlement system. And of course, we’d have to agree to them, but we all know what needs to be done. Whether it’s longevity issues or means- testing, that needs to be employed.
HUNT: But you would go beyond where Paul Ryan went on Medicare and you would address Social Security cuts, too?
BACHMANN: For Social Security, again, I want to be crystal clear: Anyone who is currently a retiree would not be impacted. But for people who are younger than that age, that needs to be on the table. Everything needs to be on the table.
Consider that she has said that she wants to “wean everybody off” entitlements. “Basically, what we have to do is wean everybody else off,” she has said. “So we just have to be straight with people. So basically, whoever our nominee is, is going to have to have a Glenn Beck chalkboard and explain to everybody this is the way it is.” As a reminder, the House Republican budget all but eviscerates Medicare, increasing costs for seniors dramatically, while gutting Medicaid. And for Bachmann, that isn’t enough.
During an interview with the Wall Street Journal, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA) said he is ready and willing to slash entitlements like Medicare, because, in his opinion, Americans have to “come to grips with the fact that promises have been made that frankly are not going to be kept for many“:
What we need to be able to do is to demonstrate that that is the better way for the people of this country. Get the fiscal house in order, come to grips with the fact that promises have been made that, frankly, are not going to be kept for many. [...] The math doesn’t lie.
Republicans have been saying for months that they want to preserve programs like Medicare and Social Security for all people over the age of 55, but that those under 55 will have to shift into a different program. But Cantor’s pronouncement is maybe the most explicit explanation that, under the GOP’s vision, the government would be actively reneging on promises made to those who haven’t yet hit the arbitrary age of 55.
Of course, the math would look much better, particularly on Social Security, if the GOP were to back off its insistence that the government not collect a single dime in new revenue. Meanwhile, Jacob Hacker, political science professor at Yale University, has called the GOP’s scheme to raise the Medicare retirement age “the single worst idea for Medicare reform” since it “saves Medicare money only by shifting the cost burden onto older Americans caught between the old eligibility age and the new, as well as onto the employers and states that help fund their benefits.”
This past April, right-wing war hawk John Bolton suggested during an interview on Fox News that the United States should cut Social Security and Medicare to finance the defense budget.
During debate over the debt deal today on the Senate floor, Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) appeared to endorse this call. Lieberman explained that he is working with Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) on a Social Security spending reduction plan and that “we can’t protect these entitlements and also have the national defense…to protect us…with Islamist extremists”:
LIEBERMAN: I want to indicate today to my colleagues that Senator Coburn and I are working again on a bipartisan proposal to secure Social Security over the long term, we hope to have that done in time. To also forward to the special committee for their consideration. So, bottom line, we can’t protect these entitlements and also have the national defense we need to protect us in a dangerous world while we’re at war with Islamist extremists who attacked us on 9/11 and will be for a long time to come.
As ThinkProgress’s Ben Armbruster notes, the Bolton-Lieberman plan is “is basically a reverse Robin Hood scheme: robbing the poor to pay the rich, or really, the Military Industrial Complex on steroids.” As Ambruster points out, a “recent Reuters poll found that Americans would rather cut defense spending than raid social services in order to solve the debt and deficit problems.” Americans do not appear to have the priorities of these two war hawks.
John Boehner’s debt ceiling proposal would add $1 trillion to the current $14.3 trillion debt limit (which would be expected to allow the government to continue borrowing into April of 2012), reduce spending immediately and cap future spending to save $1.2 trillion over 10 years, and establish a 12-member joint committee of Congress charged with reporting back to both chambers by Nov. 23 with recommendations to reduce the deficit by an additional $1.8 trillion over 10 years. The plan also calls for a vote on a constitutional balanced budget amendment before the end of 2011.
It’s a plan that the usually “mild-mannered” Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) is describing as “tantamount to a form of ‘class warfare’” that “if enacted, it could well produce the greatest increase in poverty and hardship produced by any law in modern U.S. history.” Since Boehner’s blueprint contains no tax increases and his first round of cuts targets discretionary spending, the joint committee will have no choice but to achieve its $1.8 trillion in budget reductions by cutting entitlement spending, Greenstein explains:
– As a result, virtually all of that $1.8 trillion would come from entitlement programs. They would have to be cut more than $1.5 trillion in order to produce sufficient interest savings to achieve $1.8 trillion in total savings.
– To secure $1.5 trillion in entitlement savings over the next ten years would require draconian policy changes. Policymakers would essentially have three choices: 1) cut Social Security and Medicare benefits heavily for current retirees, something that all budget plans from both parties (including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan’s plan) have ruled out; 2) repeal the Affordable Care Act’s coverage expansions while retaining its measures that cut Medicare payments and raise tax revenues, even though Republicans seek to repeal many of those measures as well; or 3) eviscerate the safety net for low-income children, parents, senior citizens, and people with disabilities. There is no other plausible way to get $1.5 trillion in entitlement cuts in the next ten years. [...]
In short, the Boehner plan would force policymakers to choose among cutting the incomes and health benefits of ordinary retirees, repealing the guts of health reform and leaving an estimated 34 million more Americans uninsured, and savaging the safety net for the poor. It would do so even as it shielded all tax breaks, including the many lucrative tax breaks for the wealthiest and most powerful individuals and corporations.
Congressional Quarterly’s Richard E. Cohen also reports that Boehner’s powerful panel has “no precise parallel” and will have to overcome severe logistical hurdles. “The panel would then be required to complete its work before Thanksgiving — a period of less than four months that includes the monthlong congressional August recess, two additional weeks of scheduled House breaks and three other weeks when the Senate is slated to be gone.”
It would also “have to work with existing House and Senate committees with longstanding jurisdictional claims on the issues in play and build majority support in both chambers of a divided Congress. The GOP has already cautioned that it “will not appoint any members who will approve tax hikes,” a selection criterion that “Reid and Pelosi would most certainly not follow.” The committee’s recommendations would then face up-or-down floor votes in the House and Senate without additional amendments.
Despite spending the past two years reflexively obstructing President Obama’s agenda, in the wake last November’s elections, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has said he wants to look for common ground and “areas of potential cooperation” with the president and Senate Democrats. During the previous Congress, McConnell expressed little interest in cooperating with the White House, so Democrats cautiously welcomed McConnell’s newfound willingness to compromise.
But at a breakfast event hosted by Politico’s Mike Allen this morning in D.C., which ThinkProgress attended, McConnell expressed a vision of cooperation that looks more like capitulation. McConnell said he is willing to work with Obama, as long as the president “is willing to do what I and my members would do anyway”:
MCCONNELL: If the president is willing to do what I and my members would do anyway, we’re not going to say no and –
ALLEN: But that’s not much of a concession. That’s not bargaining, to just give you what you want.
MCCONNELL: Um, I like to think I’m a pretty good negotiator.
McConnell’s comments seem to confirm what many have suspected; that the GOP leader — who recently said that the “single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president” — isn’t actually that interested in cooperation or governance.
But while McConnell wants Obama to cave to his agenda, he’s hesitant to even reveal what that agenda is, particularly on entitlement reform. Because Americans are overwhelminglyopposed to making major cuts to programs like Social Security and Medicare to trim the deficit — something manyRepublicanssupport — McConnell is insisting that negotiations on this key policy issue be kept behind closed doors:
MCCONNELL: Well look, if we’re going to do anything serious about entitlements, we’re not going to negotiate it in public.
Watch a compilation:
Asked what his party could do to avoid the pitfalls that befell former Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich after he lead the GOP to major victories in the 1994, only to resign in disgrace a few years later, McConnell said his part must avoid “acting like they [are] in charge of the government when they’re not.” Indeed.
As ThinkProgress has repeatedlynoted, despite their professed commitment to cut government spending, most Republicans in Congress refuse to propose specifics that would actually cut spending in any significant way. Recognizing the extreme unpopularity of cutting Social Security and Medicare, and the aversion of their base to military cuts, these self-styled fiscal conservatives often take entitlement and defense spending off the table, removing nearly 60 percent of the federal budget from scrutiny. Of the remaining spending, another sizable portion goes to debt payments — which are untouchable — and most Republicans also take homeland security and other security spending off the table, leaving only a small fraction of the total federal budget from which to find cuts.
Despite this stark reality, Republicans still try to claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility, and are forced to fumble, hem and haw when pressed on how they would actually cut spending. But at least one Republican leader is willing to be honest. Appearing on MSNBC’s Morning Joe today, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) essentially called his party’s congressional leaders liars, saying anybody says they want to cut spending but won’t touch entitlements or defesne is “lying to you”:
HOST: What are you going to cut?
PAWLENTY: If you look at a pie chart of federal outlays, discretionary spending being the red, non-discretionary being the blue. The blue is already over the over the half way mark and it’s growing in double digits. Anybody who comes in here and tells you they’re not going to cut anything other than waste fraud and abuse, they’re not going to touch entitlements — they’re lying to you. If you want to deal with the spending issue, in terms of total federal outlays, you got to deal with interest on the national debt, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid — if you have the time I can walk you through my ideas. But that’s the truth, you got to do entitlement reform, particularly if you’re going to hold defense harmless.
If these congressional Republicans are serious about cutting spending and want to make cuts to Social Securiy or Medicare, they should have the courage to say so honestly, as Pawlenty seems to be calling on them to do, instead of hiding behind phony claims that they can make meaningful cuts without causing significant pain.
President Barack Obama plans a busy February. The new administration hopes to have a stimulus package passed by Congress, a new plan in place to shore up ailing banks and, by month’s end, to hold a “fiscal responsibility” summit.
If the stimulus and banking bailout weren’t controversial enough, the summit fills some entitlement reform critics with dread, as they fear it could speed calls for cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
Strikingly, however, Obama appears to be getting unusual room to maneuver on entitlements by most of his liberal allies. On the subject of entitlement reform, in fact, Obama’s honeymoon continues — at least in the unlikely precincts of the Democratic left, a counterintuitive development that has buoyed the spirits of reformers who would like to see drastic changes in the way Social Security works.
I’m not sure what the administration’s thinking is, but certainly I wouldn’t be silent if he were to propose draconian cutbacks in Social Security and Medicare. On the other hand, if Obama wants to get the long-term public fiscal situation in check by tackling its main root cause—runaway cost inflation in the health care sector—I would applaud that:
I have some reason for confidence that Obama will, in fact, do the right thing. That’s because the liberal perspective on this is espoused by, among other, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag. The chart above comes from his Congressional Budget Office days when he produced a masterful slide series entitled “Health Care: Capturing the Opportunity in the Nation’s Core Fiscal Challenge” which defines the “fiscal challenge” correctly as less an “entitlement” problem than an “health care” problem. You could solve the entitlement problem fairly easily, if brutally, without tackling the health care problem—just pair back benefits. And then instead of a bankrupt state you’ll have bankrupt families and you won’t have achieved anything. But if you can solve the health care problem, you’ll have done most of what needs to be done and set the stage for tackling other issues.