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Durbin Once Opposed Raising Social Security Retirement Age: ‘It’s Tough To Say Just Stick Around’

Today, President Obama’s Deficit Commission voted on the recommendations laid out in its deficit reduction report. Included among the report’s recommendations is gradually raising the Social Security retirement age to 69 by 2075. Although the commission failed to get the 14 votes it is required to get in order to pass the plan on to Congress, its recommendations are expected to be taken up in some form by legislators at some point.

Yesterday, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) announced that he will be voting in favor of the commission’s recommendations. The same day, he wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune explaining why he was voting in favor of the plan. While explaining that he believes that Social Security “is the most important social program in America,” he explicitily endorsed raising the retirement age, citing the need to make “hard choices”:

On Friday, when President Barack Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform gathers to consider a plan to bring our national debt under control, I will be voting yes. It was not an easy decision, and I know my vote will be widely criticized, but I believe it is the right thing to do. […]

Social Security is the most important social program in America. The commission creates an actuarially sound program for an additional 75 years. It increases the minimum benefit for the lowest income Social Security recipients and adds a much needed increase in benefits for those above the age of 85. It raises the retirement age one year to 68, 40 years from now, meaning no one above the age of 28 today would be affected and the retirement age would be 69, 65 years from now. […]

My friend, mentor and former Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, echoing former Sen. Paul Douglas , famously said: “To be a liberal doesn’t mean you’re a wastrel. We must, in fact, be thrifty if we are to be really humane.” It’s time for all of us to come together to make hard choices. I am ready to do my part.

Yet Durbin’s position is a disappointing reversal from his previous stance on Social Security. In October, he told Congress Daily that he “opposed increasing the retirement age for Social Security.” In explaining his opposition, he said, “It’s tough to say just stick around and deliver mail for another couple of years, be a waitress for another couple of years”:

Durbin also said that he opposed increasing the retirement age for Social Security — a move called for in a deficit-reduction plan written by House Budget Committee ranking member Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Durbin said raising the retirement age would be unfair to workers who do physical labor.

“It’s tough to say just stick around and deliver mail for another couple of years, be a waitress for another couple of years,” Durbin said. Instead he recommends boosting the percent of wages that can be taxed to fund Social Security. He said in 1983 90 percent of wages were subject to Social Security taxes and now only 83 percent are. He added that the increase would come from beneficiaries “in upper income categories or their employers.”

On many issues, Durbin has been one of the Senate’s strongest fighters for progressive priorities. He led the fight against the Bush Administration’s privatization of Social Security, has been one of the Senate’s top advocates for the rights of undocumented immigrants, has worked towards greater fairness in the justice system, and has been on the right side of nearly every economic justice issue during his time in the Senate.

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That’s why it’s disappointing to see Durbin endorse such a regressive proposal. Social Security is currently projected to be fully solvent until the year 2037. After that, it is expected to be able to pay out 75 percent of benefits until 2084 (once you account for inflation those basically consist of full benefits). That does not mean that there aren’t positive and progressive changes that could possibly be made to the system. Raising the Social Security age, however would be a particularly punitive change.

While it is true that average life expectancy has increased over time, these gains are largely a result of life expectancy rising among upper income earners. Among moderate and low income workers, life expectancy has barely changed. And “nearly half of workers over the age of 58 work at jobs that are either physically demanding or involve difficult work conditions.” Raising the retirement age would create enormous burdens on those who work at these jobs.

One place to start in pursuing better, more progressive solutions to the long-term Social Security deficit would be to raise the payroll tax cap. Currently, only the first $106,800 of a person’s income is considered taxable for the purpose of funding Social Security. Raising this cap significantly or eliminating it would essentially leave the program fully funded for decades to come, and not create undue hardship on those working physically demanding jobs.

An Election Day poll by Survey USA found that 85 percent of voters are opposed to cutting Social Security, and that Republicans by a 2-to-1 margin back raising the tax cap over raising the retirement age. Should Durbin once again oppose raising the retirement age, he will have a huge majority of Americans at his back.