As Conservatives Push for Benefit Cuts, New Progressive Coalition Campaigns for Social Security Expansion

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Posted Nov. 13, 2013

Interview with Kimberly Fountain, Social Security Expansion campaign director with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, conducted by Scott Harris

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Since the Republican Party took control of the U.S. House of Representatives after the 2010 congressional mid-term election, the GOP majority has demanded massive budget cuts in federal programs. To further that austerity agenda, the GOP majority has provoked crisis after crisis over the debt ceiling, fiscal cliff, the sequester and most recently, a costly 16-day government shutdown.

Many conservative politicians focus their attention on reducing the federal budget deficit and parallel demands to reduce Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits. Since 2011, President Obama has repeatedly stated his openness to trimming these programs in exchange for specific concessions in order to reach a so-called “grand bargain agreement with the GOP." But despite a well-funded campaign to convince the American people that cuts to the nation’s social safety net programs are both urgent and necessary, opinion polls find that Democrats, Republicans and Independent voters all reject these proposed cuts by wide margins.

Now a new coalition of groups led by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee has gone on the offensive calling for expansion of the Social Security system. These groups and their allies in Congress say increasing Social Security benefits is critical in an age of shrinking pensions and they say they can do it by “scrapping the cap” on what wealthy people pay into the Social Security system. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Kimberly Fountain, Social Security Expansion campaign director with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, who explains the goals of this effort.

KIMBERLY FOUNTAIN: Right now, corporations have been slashing pensions. Protecting the current system is not enough. Americans really rely on this program more than ever. So we actually decided to go on the offense, so that we could push for more than the status quo and really give people the help that they need. And when it comes to the Harkin-Begich Plan, which is what we've been promoting, it kind of does the anti-thesis to some of the cuts you've been hearing about.

So, unlike the president's proposal to cut Social Security benefits through chained CPI, the Harkin-Begich plan actually gives a worker $452 more per year by age 75 and $807 more per year by age 85. And the Harkin bill also has an additional increase of almost $800 a year.

And the way that it's all paid for is by ensuring that the wealthy pay the same rate as everyone else into Social Security, something that we like to call "scrapping the cap." This way we can pay for those benefit increases that we desperately need and still have enough left over to add to Social Security's solvency. And one of the things you don't hear very much about is that there is a $2.7 trillion surplus. So this increasing solvency would actually be beyond that.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Say a word, a few more words about "scrapping the cap." Outline for us one more time, if you would, what the current cap is on contributions from the wealthy on contributing to Social Security and what you'd like to see happen as opposed to the current cap.

KIMBERLY FOUNTAIN: Yes, so the current cap is around $113K. What's interesting is that it wasn't always that way. The wealthy used to pay their fair share into the system. So, all we want to do is bring it back to that, them paying their fair share. So literally, removing that cap, making everyone pay their fair share into the system so that we extend the solvency and increase benefits because, again, things like pensions and unreliable 401(k)s, they're just not there any more.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What are we talking about in terms of increases of payments by the wealthy when it comes to lifting this cap? Have you done any estimates of how much revenue could be raised like that and what the potential bite is on individual, wealthy families?

KIMBERLY FOUNTAIN: It's very, very small. I don't have the exact number in front of me, but it's around less than 1.2 percent or something. But I can get back to you. It's very small, and really what's happening right now is the rest of us are paying our fair share. So it's just about us all paying into the system because this program is for everybody.

BETWEEN THE LINES: One of the things I'd like to explore with you about the polling is the interesting fact – correct me if I'm wrong – that so-called or self-described tea party activists are as equally against cuts in Social Security and Medicare as are the rest of the population. So these self-described, ultra-conservative activists really reject this, what we're told is the establishment conservative solution to saving the social safety net programs, which are cutbacks.

KIMBERLY FOUNTAIN: Yeah, the truth is this not a partisan issue. Democrats, independents, and Republicans -- they all want Social Security expansion.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Kimberly, tell us a little about the actions that you're advocating here to expand Social Security, namely petitions and other things that you're planning.

KIMBERLY FOUNTAIN: Sure, so, again to go to our petition, you can go to ExpandSocialSecurity.com, and what's so amazing about this campaign is that we just started a couple months ago. And a couple months ago, you weren't really hearing a lot about it. But since then, we've been able to collect close to 650,000 signatures in support of expansions. Pretty exciting. We've built a huge coalition. We've been working with groups like Social Security Works, Democracy for America, AFL-CIO and many others. We've listed a growing number of heroes. In the Senate, folks like Sen. Tom Harkin from the rural state of Iowa, Mark Begich from the red state of Alaska, Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono from Hawaii and now, our brand new champion, Sen. Sherrod Brown from the purple state of Ohio. And then we've also built some in the House as well, like Linda Sanchez from California, Mike Honda from California, Rosa DeLauro from Connecticut and Alan Grayson from Florida and many more.

We've also been able to do some polling from states as diverse as Kentucky, Iowa and California, showing that expanding Social Security benefits is actually popular by over 2 to 1. And in Texas, Colorado and Hawaii, it's actually 3 to 1. And for folks that want to see more about our polling, you can go to 2014polling.com. But again, by generating this momentum for Social Security expansion for things we've recently done, we've taken benefit cuts off the table and really given progressives a great issue to run on in 2014 and paving the way for helping millions of our grandparents and our veterans as we celebrate on this Veterans Day.

For more information on the Progressive Change Campaign Committee's Expand Social Security campaign, visit ExpandSocialSecurity.com.

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