Joe Biden is very offended that Bernie Sanders and many of his prominent supporters have been pointing out Biden’s fickle relationship with Social Security. Namely, that he has, for decades, pushed for cuts, siding with Republicans in their efforts to reduce government spending.
But according to Biden, none of this well-documented history is true. On Tuesday night, Biden released an ad and wrote that he’s “been fighting to protect—and expand—Social Security for my whole career.” Biden added, “Any suggestion otherwise is just flat-out wrong.” “Bernie’s campaign is not telling the truth,” the ad claims.
Sanders, for his part, hit back quickly with his own video, along with a statement by Sanders’ campaign manager Faiz Shakir: “Joe Biden is no defender of Social Security, and a negative ad won’t help him outrun his record.”
About that record: unfortunately for Biden, it sucks, which I guess he’s willfully choosing to ignore. (Are we allowed to say he’s lying yet?) As the Intercept’s Ryan Grim detailed, Biden has since the 1980s called for cuts in Social Security spending, moves that he defended as ways to both cut the federal deficit and preserve the future of the program.
This, as Grim and others have noted, put him firmly in line with the type of “New Democrat” emerging in the ’80s, one who was more concerned with deficit spending and reining in the cost of Social Security, Medicare, and Mediciad than in defending much-needed social programs.
Here’s just one example: In 1984, Biden, along with two Republicans, proposed a one-year freeze of all federal spending, which for Social Security would have led to no cost-of-living increase that year. “While this program is severe, it is the only proposal that will halt the upward spiral of deficits,” he said at the time of his proposal, which was voted down. Writing in 2012, ABC News compared Biden to then-Representative Paul Ryan, the Republican chair of the House Budget Committee: “In sounding the alarm, the Biden of 1984 sounds a lot like the Ryan of 2012.”
This wasn’t an anomaly—Biden has a long history as a deficit hawk, regularly warning of a looming catastrophe in order to justify legislation that would freeze spending. In 1995, as reported by Slate, Biden defended his decision to support a Republican-pushed Constitutional amendment that would require the federal government to have a balanced budget to the New York Times, saying, “Unless this thing gets focused, by the time we face the music, everything I care about is going to be gone.”
More, from Slate:
The amendment ultimately lost by a single vote in the Senate, because Democrats said that they were worried it would lead Congress to raid the Social Security Trust Fund in order to limit the deficit. Biden, along with other members of his party, had fought to tweak the amendment so that it would exclude the retirement program. But after that effort failed, he put his concerns aside and voted yay with the GOP anyway. When Republicans took a second doomed shot at the balanced budget amendment in 1997, he supported it again.
Biden’s role as a deficit hawk is one that he was proud of. “When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well,” Biden said in 1995 on the Senate floor, describing public programs that millions of people rely on as “sacred cows, some deserving more protection than others.” He continued: “I meant Medicare and Medicaid. I meant veterans benefits. I meant every single solitary thing in the government. And I not only tried it once, I tried it twice, I tried it a third time, and I tried it a fourth time.”
Biden didn’t just push to contract Social Security throughout the ’80s and ’90s. In 2007, as he was running for president, Biden, sounding like quite the Republican, spoke repeatedly of the need to trim programs like Social Security and Medicare, which he continued to frame as necessary reforms to protect public programs. In an interview with “Meet the Press,” he spoke of the need for “gradually raising the retirement age” and the need to “put all of it on the table” and on the campaign trail, Biden regularly stressed the need to “fix Social Security” by making “some tough decisions.”
Once he became Vice President, Biden continued to, as In These Times put it, display a willingness to “sacrifice Social Security and Medicare for the sake of bipartisan compromise,” appointing a former Republican senator and critic of government spending to chair Barack Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility. The group, which became known as the Simpson-Bowles Commission, unsurprisingly pitched deep cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid spending that would have, if enacted, led to “significant benefit cuts for most retirees, including many with modest incomes,” according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
And Biden, as In These Times detailed, “took a far more direct role in undermining Social Security and Medicare when he headed tax policy negotiations with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell in December 2010,” which ultimately resulted in a deal that “extended the Bush tax cuts, cut payroll taxes by $112 billion and met a host of other Republican demands.” (Bernie Sanders, for his part, mounted an eight-hour speech on the Senate floor to oppose the deal.)
His zeal for bipartisan “reform” (read: gutting) continued throughout his time as Vice President. More, from In These Times, on Biden’s subsequent efforts in 2011 to lead negotiations with Republican leaders on the deficit:
Later in the negotiations, Biden dangled the possibility of Medicare cuts in return for more revenue—meaning higher taxes. Soon after, he suggested Democrats might be comfortable raising the eligibility age for entitlements, imposing means testing and changing the consumer price index calculation, known as CPI. (Means testing is often seen a Trojan horse for chipping away at these programs, because their universality is one of the reasons they’ve remained virtually untouchable for almost a century. It’s also been criticized for imposing an unnecessary and discouraging layer of bureaucracy.)
It’s also worth noting that using chained CPI, which is a way to reduce annual cost-of-living adjustments by arguing that people would swap cheaper products in place of more expensive ones, is simply another way to cut benefits. As the Prospect notes, “The net effect of chained CPI would have been a Social Security benefit cut, which only makes sense if you think seniors get too sweet a deal with their $1,461 a month in average benefits. The average worker retiring at 65 would have seen a $650 reduction in benefits by age 75, and then $1,130 by age 85, according to economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.”
Gee, Biden sure sounds like someone who’s always tried to protect and expand Social Security for his entire career to me!
Today, as he runs for president again, Biden is pitching a plan that would expand Social Security by “asking Americans with especially high wages to pay the same taxes on those earnings that middle-class families pay,” which I assume to mean raising the Social Security payroll tax threshold. But he can’t ignore the fact that for decades, he worked to undermine the program he now claims he has always supported—all in service to a plan pushed by Republicans and embraced by moderate, Third Way Democrats like Biden to reduce government spending. I guess this is what he means when he says there’s “an awful lot of really good Republicans out there.” He’s already shown who he’s eager to work with, and that bipartisanship only means caving to their side.