By Ramsey Cox
When Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.) ran for Congress on a message of protecting Social Security, some of his future constituents questioned his emphasis on the issue.
"In my campaign people would say, "You're trying to scare people talking about Social Security or privatizing Social Security or changing Medicare,' and, lo and behold, nine months later, as predicted, that's exactly what the Republicans have tried to do," he said.
Cicilline said Republicans have introduced a bill to privatize Social Security, and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) proposal would "end Medicare as we know it."
With Congress, the supercommittee and even President Obama looking to change benefits to sustain the programs, Cicilline said he is worried for seniors, especially in his home state, where AARP estimates 18 percent are Social Security recipients, higher than the national average of 16 percent.
"I believe these are two programs that we should be incredibly proud of as a country," Cicilline said. "They were created because they reflected the values of our country. We should do everything we can to protect and strengthen them and we should not cut the benefits to those programs."
Besides the obvious solution of getting more people back to work, Cicilline suggested raising the cap on Social Security taxes -- currently taxes are paid only on income up to $106,800.
"There's some analysis that suggests that goes a very long way to extending the solvency of Social Security," Cicilline said. "I think we ought to be looking at some of those fixes, which are modest adjustments to keep the integrity of the system intact."
In a 2010 report, the Senate Special Committee on Aging said if the earning cap were completely eliminated, 95 percent of the projected shortfall in the Social Security program would be eliminated.
Social Security is just one issue Cicilline has focused on as a member of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, on which he was selected to serve at the beginning of this year. He's also worked on jobs, infrastructure and ending the war in Afghanistan.
"The focus of the Steering and Policy Committee, almost since I got here, has been, "What are the strategies and legislation and the set of policies that we can be advocating to get the economy back on track and to get Americans back to work?'" Cicilline said.
He sponsored the "Make It In America" block grants and said restoring America's infrastructure is key to economic recovery.
"We need to sustain and increase our investment in infrastructure so we can compete successfully," Cicilline said. "There's also a public safety challenge here, if you think about what happened in New Orleans and in Minnesota with the bridge. We're going to see more of that in this country if we don't take this seriously."
Cicilline said the war in Afghanistan diverted resources from infrastructure projects at home.
"We're spending over $100 billion this past year and we're doing things like building roads and bridges and training police officers and building schools [in Afghanistan] and we're cutting the very same things here in our own country," he said. "And I think we need to begin to direct those resources back to the United States and address the urgent priorities of our own country."
Cicilline said he believes in the principle of supporting democracies, but that the pervasive government corruption in Afghanistan is costing America too much.
"In order for us to be strong internationally, we have to be strong as a country, and that means we have to take care of our education system and our infrastructure and protect our seniors and take care of our veterans, and those issues are urgent," Cicilline said. "We're borrowing this money in Afghanistan. We're putting it on the American taxpayers' credit card, putting ourselves further in debt to build a country halfway around the world."
As co-chairman of the Equality Caucus, Cicilline has also been working on anti-discrimination legislation. As one of a handful of openly gay members in the House, Cicilline said he has co-sponsored every bill relating to the gay and lesbian community.
"People don't realize that the inequality that exists that the consequences of having marriage discrimination in this country against gay and lesbian couples in terms of their access to healthcare and their ability to transfer their estates upon death, they're very practical consequences beyond the theory of equality that I hope everyone supports," Cicilline said. "The discrimination that exists has really harmful effects on members of our community -- my community."
Cicilline said that as an openly gay elected official, he advances the gay-rights cause just by showing up to work.
"We're obviously not there yet as a country and certainly there are lots of people in Congress who don't share those views," Cicilline said. "But I think every day that we work together that we make the case by our actions and our deeds and what we say that it will make it less and less acceptable to embrace or tolerate discrimination against people because of their sexual orientation."