By Grace Aylmer
This week, the New York Times wrote a less than optimistic piece on the future of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. The article named the usual suspects aiming to slash these critical public safeguards– most notably, Mick Mulvaney, Tom Price and members of the House Freedom Caucus. But, the article left out one important player: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which has been one of the staunchest opponents of these critical programs it dismisses as “the main driver of deficits” and has been working to oppose them for decades.
The trade association’s war on Social Security dates back to the program’s very beginning, when the Chamber was a steadfast opponent of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal agenda, arguing that Roosevelt was attempting to “Sovietize America.” The Chamber lost its battle against the New Deal and Social Security became law.
Not only did America remain a capitalist stronghold even after Social Security became law, Americans secured additional safety net protections like Medicare, guaranteed medical care for the aged or disabled. Roughly 1 in 5 Americans receive health care coverage through Medicare; in 2015, Medicare provided health insurance coverage to 55.3 million Americans.
Despite the overwhelming success of these programs in reducing poverty and providing health care more affordably than private insurance, the Chamber never misses an opportunity to call for their demise. In 2005, the Chamber supported President George W. Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security by joining the business-funded and misleadingly-named Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America’s Social Security (COMPASS). Despite the fact that Bush and the Chamber pushed aggressively for privatization, their efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, as the cuts to these vital protections was widely unpopular with the American public, and still is according to polling.
Undeterred, the Chamber continued its crusade against America’s social safety net. In 2013, Bruce Josten, the Chamber’s then top lobbyist, delivered a speech to Chamber board members outlining the “10 truths about America’s entitlement program.” In today’s political parlance, we would call these “10 truths” “alternative facts”.
We’ll spare you the pain of myth busting each of the Chamber’s ten “truths,” because in one way or another, the Chamber’s arguments all stem from the same place. Anyone who’s ever walked through an airport or waiting room while Fox and Friends was airing has heard the same old tired talking points: entitlement programs are large, expensive, and will only continue to become larger and more expensive, and something must be done now. The Chamber never mentions all of the people who benefit from social insurance programs. In 2012, 57 million Americans received almost $800 billion in Social Security benefits. Economists estimate that Social Security benefits in turn generate approximately $1.4 trillion in economic output and more than 9.2 million jobs.
Moreover, when the Chamber repeatedly stated in 2013 that “the cost to make these programs financially solvent for the next 75 years is almost $40 trillion,” it ignores the fact that unless the Chamber has been given a crystal ball that we’re unaware of, it is nearly impossible to know what the fiscal landscape will be in 2088. Nor does the Chamber mention that it would be very easy to put Social Security and Medicare on firm fiscal ground simply by looking at the multitude of policies that could provide more revenue for these programs.
In July of 2016, the Chamber signaled support for the deceptively-named Save Our Social Security (S.O.S.) Act legislation that would raise the full retirement age from age 67 to 69, beginning in 2022. Then in August of 2016, the Chamber addressed an open letter to presidential debate host Lester Holt suggesting that spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid was out of control and urging him to question the candidates about their plans for these programs.
While the Chamber and the GOP appear to agree on nearly every issue, it seemed to rub the Chamber the wrong way that Donald Trump, the GOP presidential standard-bearer, had promised on 13 separate occasions to not cut Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid.
Which brings us to present.
Since the election, President Trump has adopted most of the Chamber’s agenda, and he’s even walked back his promise to protect Medicaid. He hasn’t, however, said a word about Social Security or Medicare. Meanwhile, U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan has made it very clear that he intends to move full steam ahead on destroying Medicare. He will without a doubt have the Chamber as an ally in that fight.
In Tom Donohue’s 2017 State of American Business address, he once again reaffirmed the Chamber’s commitment to playing a leading role in gutting these programs. “It is simple that there can be no solution to the nation’s long-term fiscal imbalances and our exploding national debt that does not involve reforming Social Security, Medicare, and for the state budgets, Medicaid,” he said. In Chamber-speak, “reforming” means “cutting.”
The simple fact is this: The Chamber has a long history of leading the charge to destroy America’s social safety net. And while we have yet to see whether or not Trump will keep his promises to protect Social Security and Medicare, so far the signs are not promising. With Speaker Ryan, the Republican-controlled Congress, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney, who referred to Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme,” and Tom Price, as the Health and Human Services Secretary who wants to privatize Medicare all in favor of gutting social insurance programs, 2017 may unfortunately be the Chamber’s likeliest opportunity to win its decades-long battle against Social Security and Medicare.
It’s great to see the impact of the loud and clear pushback lawmakers are getting in townhalls in districts across the country, and that average citizens are making sure their voices are being heard. The upcoming war over protecting Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid is going to be a another case where American voters are not going to sit back quietly and watch the hard-won, essential protections that keep their families safe and healthy be stripped away so that huge corporations can make millions more in profit.
Now it’s time for the Chamber (and the companies that fund the lobbying behemoth) to get some of this much-deserved flak as well.