Yesterday, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order establishing a commission to tackle the federal debt. The commission’s purpose is to reduce the federal budget deficit from 10% to 3% by 2015 and to propose ways to contain costs related to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. As co-chairs of the commission, the president named former Bill Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles and former Republican Senator Alan Simpson. Bowles, president of the University of North Carolina, worked to pass the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 with Republicans in Congress when he was White House Chief of Staff. He ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2002 and 2004. Simpson served as a Wyoming senator from 1979 to 1997 and as Senate GOP Whip from 1985 to 1995. Alliance Executive Director Edward F. Coyle said yesterday, “Retirees fully support President Obama on the critical need to reduce our nation’s budget deficit. Older Americans have always been uncomfortable with large debt, both in government and in their own families. We are, however, wary of the objectivity that Commission Co-Chair Alan K. Simpson will bring to this important assignment. As a Senator, Simpson referred to older Americans as ‘greedy geezers’ and launched bitter and protracted assaults against advocacy groups for seniors. Social Security benefits would have been cut under his plan to change the statistical formula used to calculate Cost-of-Living Adjustments.” Mr. Coyle continued, “We believe that if the Commission takes a thorough and honest look at Social Security and Medicare, it will conclude that these vital programs should be strengthened, not weakened. Social Security and Medicare are two of our nation’s greatest success stories, helping generations of seniors stay healthy and out of poverty.”
President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget proposes a $250 payment to Social Security recipients. The relief would come at a time when Social Security beneficiaries will not be receiving a normal cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) because of a formula that forbids adjustments during times of negative inflation. “Without a COLA, far too many of America’s seniors will find it even more difficult to purchase basic necessities, heat their homes and pay for their medications,” said Barbara J. Easterling, President of the Alliance. “We urge Congress to similarly work to provide much-needed economic relief to older Americans who are struggling to make ends meet during these difficult times,” she continued. “The President’s budget proposal will provide Social Security beneficiaries with the equivalent of a 2% increase in benefits and will help greatly to bolster their financial security.”
As expected, the budget also calls for a Bipartisan Fiscal Commission that will address the growth of entitlement spending, including Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. A plan to freeze non-security discretionary spending for three years to address the budget deficit would not affect those programs. “We must watch this fiscal commission development carefully, so that the budget is not balanced on the backs of seniors,” said Edward F. Coyle, Executive Director of the Alliance. Other items in the budget are aimed at supporting seniors. These include $3.3 billion for the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP); funds to reduce Social Security backlogs; and money to help families care for aging relatives at home. Retirement security initiatives include establishing automatic workplace IRAs, with employees being able to “opt-out” if they choose; doubling the credit for small employers starting a retirement plan; and providing a 50-percent match on the retirement savings of families that earn less than $85,000.
Recharging Health Care Reform
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), and President Obama all took steps this past week towards a revival of the floundering health care reform initiative. Pelosi announced her plan to schedule a vote next week on a smaller bill, which would focus on a fifty-year-old exemption of health insurance companies from anti-trust laws. This vote is an integral part of her strategy to tackle items that would not normally be included in a more expansive bill. This smaller bill would bear similarities to a section of the House health care bill which proposed ending the exemption for health and medical malpractice insurers, while granting the government more power to regulate anti-trust laws. Pelosi’s decision came in the midst of a debate on the use of reconciliation, a procedural maneuver that would allow the Senate to amend and pass the health care bill with only 51 votes. According to Reid, a reconciliation bill would first have to be approved by the House, where revenue measures must originate. A vote in the Senate would then follow. President Obama called on Republicans to support the reform bill.
During his State of the Union address on Wednesday, President Obama vocalized the critical need for a reduction in the federal deficit. Alliance Executive Director Edward Coyle agreed with the sentiment but cautioned, “We cannot balance the budget on the backs of America’s seniors. Vital programs such as Social Security and Medicare did not cause these large deficits.” He added, “The passage of a strong health care reform bill will not only improve our nation’s physical health, but its fiscal health as well, and therefore must remain a priority.” The day after the speech, the President traveled to speak at a Town Hall event in Florida at the University of Tampa. Alliance members Bob Meeks and Tony Scelzo were among those in attendance, along with Florida Alliance Field Organizer Jenny Kenny.
Conrad-Gregg Task Force Defeated
On Tuesday, the Senate voted down the Conrad-Gregg debt task force, 53 to 46. The proposal did not collect the 60 votes required for it to pass, primarily failing due to concerns about cutting funds for Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, but also due to the severe limitations that it would have put on Congressional debate. Here is a link to the vote: http://bit.ly/d0nB5F. Before the 53-46 vote, the Senate added by 97-0 an amendment by Sen. Max Baucus (D-MT) to exempt Social Security from the deliberations of the task force. It is expected that President Obama will now create a bipartisan fiscal commission by executive order. “I’d like to thank our members and activists for sending more than 6,000 letters to their Senators urging them to vote against this wrongheaded plan. It was a great help and surely contributed to a victory in this round,” said Barbara J. Easterling, President of the Alliance.
Middle Class Task Force Recommendations Emerge
The White House Middle Class Task Force, led by Vice President Joe Biden, has released a preview of its recommendations for strengthening the middle class. The recommendations include a few core items for seniors, such as expanded funding for caregiving, respite care, promoting 401(k) transparency, and the availability of annuities. The respite care and expanded funding for the Department of Health and Human Services would help seniors maintain their independence and live in the community for as long as possible, as well as assist their family caregivers with essential elder care training. The Task Force will advocate automatic workplace IRAs with an opt-out option; a saver’s credit that would match workers’ retirement savings; an update of 401(k) regulations in order to ensure transparency; and increased availability of optional annuities as well as other forms of guaranteed lifetime income. The Alliance is also urging the White House to include a $250 stimulus payment to Social Security recipients since there is no Cost of Living Adjustment in 2010. The President’s budget will be released on Monday. “Americans have seen their retirement savings plummet. It is important that the government renew their commitment to all citizens,” said Ruben Burks, Secretary-Treasurer of the Alliance. Next month, the committee will deliver its year-end report to the President, and it is expected that Congress will be pressed to create legislation supporting the Task Force’s suggestions.
The Next Step for Health Care
President Obama spoke briefly on the imperiled health care reform bill during Wednesday’s State of the Union address, asking legislators of both parties to bring forward any plans or policies they feel would strengthen Medicare for seniors and cover all uninsured Americans. Democratic leaders have put forward two possible plans – they may start from scratch and keep only the most popular provisions, or they may have the House pass the Senate measure, and then use a budget reconciliation process in the Senate. Reconciliation would help Democrats avoid a GOP filibuster, since the process requires only a simple majority. Democratic leadership is expected to decide on a course by next week. On Tuesday, members of the Leadership Council of Aging Organizations (LCAO), including the Alliance, sent a letter strongly urging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) to continue working on health care reform. The letter stressed that reform could allow Medicare to negotiate drug prices, help older Americans remain independent in their homes, reduce out-of-pocket costs, and protect against elder abuse.
Retirees with the Write Stuff: Write Letter, Win Pen
“Retirees with the Write Stuff” is an Alliance project recognizing retirees whose letters to the editor are published. Most recently, Vivian Silbiger, Janice Ayres, Billy Feitlinger, Donna McGrath, Owen Humphress, John Pernorio, Beatrice Stratton, and Barbara Franklin contributed to their state and local papers. If you have had a letter published recently, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can recognize you and send you a “Write Stuff” pen.
Join the Alliance in Las Vegas to Build Retiree Power
As a reminder, on April 5-8, 2010 in Las Vegas, the Alliance for Retired Americans will be holding its annual convention. The conference, Building Retiree Power, will offer educational and training opportunities to improve both grassroots activism techniques and leadership skills. Topics such as health care reform, Social Security, community organizing, fund-raising, and the use of popular on-line communication tools including Facebook will be addressed through informative speakers and workshops. For up-to-date information, or to sign-up for the convention, visit http://bit.ly/1jIzz2 or call 1-888-373-6497.
Andy Barnes, Co-Founder of California Alliance for Retired Americans, Dies
Andy Barnes, a retired machinist and much-loved retiree activist, has passed away after a struggle with cancer. Mr. Barnes retired in 1999 after serving as a Grand Lodge Representative for twenty years. He served as Treasurer and a regional chair for the National Council for Senior Citizens, and helped to found the California Alliance for Retired Americans in 2003. “He was an integral part of the retirees department, and will be missed very much,” said Maria Cordone, Retiree Director of the machinists union.