This report was written by Walker Bragman.
President-elect Joe Biden will reportedly nominate a White House budget director who has been one of the country’s most prominent critics of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and who has previously backed Social Security cuts.
Biden — who has repeatedly pushed for Social Security cuts throughout his career — announced his selection of Center for American Progress president Neera Tanden as his choice to run the powerful White House Office of Management and Budget. A longtime aide to Hillary Clinton, Tanden touted her think tank’s 2010 proposal to reduce Social Security benefits in 2012, as Biden was pushing for such cuts in the Obama administration.
Tanden’s Social Security push followed the 2010 midterms, during the deficit reduction negotiations between the Obama administration and the new GOP Congress. Republicans drew a hard line but Obama sought a middle ground. Central to the administration’s efforts, which were led by Biden, was a plan called the “chained CPI” that would have slowed the rate at which Social Security benefits increase over time.
Sanders led the fight in the Senate against chained CPI, while outside groups were divided over whether to line up behind the president. Some, like the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, vocally opposed the cuts.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, found that the chained CPI “would cut Social Security retirement benefits by about 2 percent, on average.” The organization, nevertheless, said it would support the concept under certain conditions.
Tanden’s CAP, at the time considered to be the largest liberal think tank in Washington, also supported the idea and was a significant voice in favor of the administration’s plan.
Tanden explained her views in a February 2012 C-SPAN interview. Asked by a caller about entitlement reform, she named Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid as targets for possible cuts, noting that “the president has $300 million in his budget in cuts in Medicare.”
“That comes on top of cuts in Medicare for the Affordable Care Act. So he has put specific cuts in the budget in Medicare,” she said. “And they had savings in Medicaid in the past. I think the question really is: If we’re going to have a deal to address long-term deficit reduction, we need to put both entitlements on the table as well as taxes.”
Tanden became more explicit in her support for cuts to Social Security as she went on:
“We should have savings on entitlements, and the Center for American Progress has put forward ideas on proposals to reform the beneficiary structure of Social Security — some of our progressive allies aren’t as excited about that as we are,” she explained. “But we’ve put those ideas on the table. We think that those are legitimate ideas that need to be part of a proposal where everyone’s at the table. We don’t just ask middle-class Americans to sacrifice. We ask all Americans.”
Indeed, in a report on Social Security solvency CAP released two years earlier, the organization cautioned that “Social Security... is showing its age,” and warned that progressive ideas like lifting the payroll tax “without addressing other problems in Social Security’s benefit design would be a mistake.” One of the solutions it proposed was the chained CPI.
“We recommend that benefits instead be tied to the chained Consumer Price Index, which is sometimes referred to as the ‘superlative’ Consumer Price Index,” the report said. “This index is a more accurate measure of inflation than the current measure. The Social Security Administration’s actuaries estimate the difference will amount to an inflation measure that will show inflation that is 0.3 percentage points lower than the currently used inflation measure.”
In 2016, Tanden wrote on Twitter that chained CPI would “help Social Security’s solvency,” but she said she disagreed with the policy.
During the Democratic primary, Biden faced scrutiny and criticism over his four-decade record of pushing cuts to Social Security. The Sanders camp seized on resurfaced videos of Biden promoting cuts and spending freezes over the years. Biden responded to these attacks by supporting an expansion of Social Security and by falsely claiming that he’d never sought to cut the program.
“I've been fighting to protect — and expand — Social Security for my whole career,” the president-elect tweeted in January. “Any suggestion otherwise is just flat-out wrong.”
At the time, Tanden tweeted that she did not see Social Security cuts as part of any Democratic administration’s plans, writing: “This whole debate is a farce.” However, in August, Biden faced criticism from progressives after one of his advisors suggested that in a Biden presidency, spending would be limited by budgetary constraints.
If Democrats manage to win the two Georgia Senate runoff races and retake control over the chamber, Sanders is widely expected to chair the Senate Budget Committee, having served as the ranking member since 2015. The Budget Committee is tasked with approving the OMB director.
Republicans are already warning that Tanden won’t win approval from GOP Senators. A spokesperson for Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, tweeted that she “stands zero chance of being confirmed.”
Photo credit: U.S. Department of Labor
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