Press-Democrat: Thompson, Huffman host Santa Rosa town hall to tout fellow Democrat’s bill on Social Security reform
By Guy Kovner
Judi Lutsky, a 72-year-old retired Rohnert Park teacher, is counting on Social Security to augment her pension as a career educator. The federal benefits system, she said, is a cornerstone to civil society and a key to her own well-being.
“We must keep it,” Lutsky said. “We have to do whatever it takes.”
Lutsky, one of about 40 million retired workers who receive $54 billion a month in Social Security benefits, was one of about 150 people, most of them middle-aged or older, at a town hall meeting Wednesday held by three Democratic congressmen backing a plan to keep Social Security solvent for the next 75 years.
“Social Security is not an entitlement, it’s insurance,” shouted Rep. John B. Larson of Connecticut, winning applause from the audience at the Finley Community Center auditorium.
Larson, the guest of Reps. Mike Thompson of St. Helena and Jared Huffman of San Rafael, attacked those who’ve called to privatize Social Security, which he hailed as “the most successful, efficient program we have” — one that safeguarded retirement benefits during the recession and the tumble in private investments, Larson said, when “your 401(k) became a 101(k).”
Thompson offered the audience a personal story, recalling that his grandmother relied on Social Security to get by after she worked two jobs that netted her a $531 monthly pension. The system needs to continue “to take care of everyone else’s grandmother,” he said.
Huffman said his 86-year-old mother, who worked all her life, also depends on the government checks.
Larson’s bill, the Social Security 2100 Act, would grant a tax cut to more than 11 million beneficiaries by raising the threshold on taxation of benefits; boost benefits by about 2 percent; bump up worker contributions by about 50 cents a week; establish a cost-of-living index for future increases based on expenses for seniors, such as health care; and apply the Social Security payroll tax to income over $400,000.
“These are not radical proposals,” Larson said. “This is common sense we need to apply.”
James Johnson, a Santa Rosa retiree who attended the meeting, said that rising food and energy costs are squeezing the middle class and putting a focus on Social Security. The proposed bill addresses a fairness issue, he said, by “raising the cap on millionaires so they pay more.”
Social Security, financed by a 6.2 percent payroll tax paid by both employers and employees, currently pays an average monthly benefit of $1,344 to retired workers. In Santa Rosa, 68,120 retired workers received $93.6 million in benefits in December 2014, according to a Social Security Administration report.
But critics now point to the retirement of 10,000 baby boomers a year as a factor that may drive Social Security into insolvency.
They have advocated slashing benefits or privatizing the system, a plan that drew fire Wednesday from Huffman, who is running for a third term representing a coastal district that stretches from Marin County to the Oregon border.
“We have to be constantly vigilant in Congress against these bad ideas,” Huffman said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, and Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, a Republican presidential candidate, have both advocated leaving Social Security for seniors alone, while allowing younger workers to put some of their contributions in private investments while gradually raising the retirement age.
Asked what would happen to Social Security if Cruz won the White House, Thompson said, “I don’t want to spoil an otherwise wonderful morning.” Without naming names, he said there are “many folks on the other side of the aisle who want to cut the program.”
Donald Trump, the Republican presidential front-runner, however, has rejected the “entitlement” label for Social Security, saying, “It’s not unreasonable for people who paid into the system for decades to expect to get their money’s worth … that’s honoring a deal,” according to the website On The Issues.
Larson said the system will remain solvent “as long as premiums keep it going, like any insurance program.” Social Security premiums, benefits and other standards haven’t been adjusted since 1983, he said.
Marv Mueller, manager of the Santa Rosa Social Security office, said the system’s trust fund, with no changes, will remain solvent until 2036. At that point it would not collapse, but would begin paying out 70 cents on the dollar.
Larson’s bill, introduced in the House a year ago, remains before two committees and has seen no action. It has 89 co-sponsors, all Democrats.
David McCuan, a Sonoma State University political scientist, said in an interview the measure is “not likely to see the light of a day” in an election year with Republicans in control of the House.
But, he said, the measure incorporates some elements, such as the tax cut and the increase in worker contributions, that has some appeal to Republicans. “It’s smart politics,” he said, suggesting the bill might get some Republican votes if it ever got to the House floor.
In an interview, Larson said he thinks the bill will gain some Republican co-sponsors after the primary election season is over and may get a committee hearing this year. Trump’s support for Social Security affords GOP lawmakers some political cover for maintaining the system, he said.
Judi Lutsky said she left the meeting better informed and more optimistic about the system.
“I feel encouraged that Social Security can be sustained,” she said.