On a cold and snowy Friday in Columbus, Ohio, seniors gathered at the Marin Janis Senior Center to hear U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown and Max Richtman, a nationally known advocate for the defense and protection of Social Security and Medicare, talk about their efforts, and how seniors can join in, to stop Congress from cutting these critical twin-pillar social safety net programs.
Richtman, who made a day trip to Ohio's capital city to join Sen. Brown and other passionate seniors and veterans who turned out despite the frigid temperatures, spoke warmly of Sen. Brown's efforts to protect Social Security for two million Ohioans, two-thirds of whom rely on their retiree benefits which constitute as much as 50 percent of their yearly income.
President and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare [NCPSSM], a group formed in 1982 that has earned a reputation as one of the nation’s most influential senior advocacy and education membership organizations, Richtman oversees a lobbying staff whose primary work is to protect the Social Security system from forces that would privatize it or cut future benefits, in order to extend the promise of guaranteed benefits to future generations.
In just six days, a special Congressional budget committee lead by Sen. Patty Murray of Washington State and Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin is tasked with crafting an agreement to set federal spending levels and lessen the impact of across-the-board sequester level deficit reduction cuts for the next two years. Among the programs being looked at is Medicare, where expectations are that lawmakers will adjust the Medicare formula for doctors who treat Medicare patients in order to achieve a sustainable growth rate for the health program for seniors 65-years and older, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965.
A former staff director for the Senate Committee on Aging, Richtman, who developed legislation to establish a Consumer Price Index for the elderly—the CPIE—that would lead to a more accurate cost of living adjustment for Social Security beneficiaries, took aim at President Obama for offering to put Social Security on the negotiating table through adoption of the so-called chained CPI, an idea Richtman's group adamantly opposes.
"The elephant in the room is a donkey," he said twice, making a point to approximately 70 seniors in the room that the White House should not buy into the argument by some, especially Republicans, who wrongly claim Social Security drives up deficits and debts.
Tipping his hat to Sen. Brown, who has done scores of similar meetings over as a former Congressman and now Senator, Richtman anointed the 61-year old Brown as the successor to the legendary Floridian, Claude Pepper, who was a champion of and spokesman for liberal and senior issues over the course of his 41 years in Congress, first serving 15 years in the U.S. Senate before serving another 26 years in the U.S House of Representatives.
Sen. Brown, who won a bruising and costly race for reelection last year, hopped on board Iowa Senator Tom Harkin’s bill to expand Social Security benefits, which if adopted would increase beneficiaries' monthly amount by $70 per and change the cost-of-living calculation to keep pace with rising costs of things seniors need—by adopting Richtman's CPIE COLA or cost of living allowance formula—and increase the Social Security payroll tax cap beyond its current level of $113,700 to strengthen the earned benefit program.
The political climate in Washington is such that the bill stands little chance of receiving a warm welcome in the U.S. House, where another Ohio lawmaker, Speaker John Boehner, has presided over the least productive Congress in the nation's history. A Gallup Poll this year found Americans disapproving of Congress, as only nine percent, the lowest in history, think it's worthy.
Sen. Brown has a strong pedigree for fighting to protect Social Security, Medicare and its sister program, Medicaid, the federal/state health insurance program for the poor and disabled. The author of a bill that would add an additional $795 to beneficiaries' checks, Sen. Brown was clearly comfortable speaking to this audience, who returned its gratitude with applause and compliments
Brown read a letter one of his staffers provided, that hearkened back to the early days of Social Security, which was signed into law in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. As one lawmaker who fought against privatizing Social Security, as Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan proposed and President George W. Bush tried to do but failed to in 2005, Sen. Brown warned those who turned out today to be vigilant because forces that would cut benefits or raise the age of retirement, or both, won't relent.
Brian Rothenberg, Director of ProgressOhio, a liberal advocacy group, focused on defending any negotiations from the so-called chained CPI. "Chains," Rothenberg said, "are man made" and built to limit.
Sam Burnett, NCPSSM's senior advocate in Toledo in northwest Ohio, was given an award from Richtman for his years of service. Burnett talked about his young years of working for 40 cents an hour digging cemetery graves, and how some of the pennies he earned that went into his Social Security account benefited him years later.
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