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Department of Defense Appropriations Act - Continued

Floor Speech

By:
Date:
Location: Washington, DC

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CHAINED CPI

Mr. SANDERS. Mr. President, as we continue to debate how to prevent this so-called fiscal cliff and how to go forward in deficit reduction, my Republican friends, apparently, want the American people to believe that making the wealthiest people in this country pay a few dollars more in taxes would amount to some kind of terrible sacrifice, and they are vigorous and unanimous in opposing the President's initial proposal to do away with all of Bush's tax breaks for people making $250,000 a year or more. I guess their new proposal coming out of the House is that only people making $1 million a year or more would see their tax rates go up.

Let me say a word about hardship and a word about sacrifice and it is not about the problems of millionaires and billionaires who are doing phenomenally well and who are being asked to pay a few dollars more to help us deal with deficit reduction, at a time when their tax rates are at a historically low rate. Let me tell you about sacrifice, and let me tell you about on whom we should not be balancing the budget.

This morning, in the Veterans' Affairs Committee, I held a press conference, which included every major veterans organization in this country, representing millions and millions of veterans, people who have put their lives on the line to defend our country and many of whom have suffered as a result.

The organizations that were there with me to say no to the so-called chained CPI--which would cut benefits for disabled veterans, which would cut benefits for widows and kids who lost their husband or their father in Iraq or Afghanistan and would see a chained CPI cut back on their limited benefits--we had at this press conference the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans, the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, the Paralyzed Veterans of America, the Blinded Veterans Association, the Wounded Warrior Project, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, the National Military Family Association, the Vietnam Veterans of America, the National Guard Association, the National Association of Uniform Services, the Jewish War Veterans, the Military Officers Association of America, AMVETS, the Association of the United States Army, the Commissioned Officers Association of the U.S. Public Health Service, the Naval Enlisted Reserve Association, the United Spinal Association, VetsFirst.

What all of them said--and some of them made this statement far more poignantly than I can--is when we talk about sacrifice, they are there; they have already done it. Some of them have come back from our wars without arms or legs or maybe they have lost their eyesight. They have sacrificed, and it is morally absurd to be equating on one hand the sacrifice of a multimillionaire, asking him to pay a few dollars more in taxes, with asking people who have lost their limbs defending this country to make a sacrifice. That is not equivalent sacrifice.

Let me talk about this so-called chained CPI. I know there are some folks out there--and I think we have had Wall Street CEOs worth hundreds of millions of dollars, who were bailed out by the taxpayers of this country, who have the most extravagant retirement benefits imaginable--they have come to Washington, DC, to tell Congress we should cut Social Security benefits for disabled veterans, raise taxes on low-income workers.

Let me tell you what this--what some call a tweak--would do. In terms of the chained CPI, more than 3.2 million disabled veterans receive disability compensation from the Veterans' Administration--3.2 million veterans. They would see a reduction--a significant reduction--in their benefits. Under the chained CPI, a disabled veteran who started receiving VA disability benefits at age 30 would have their benefits cut by more than $1,400 at age 45, $2,300 at age 55, and $3,200 at age 65.

Does anybody in their right mind think the American people want to see benefits cut for men and women who sacrificed, who lost limbs defending their country? Are we going to balance the budget on their backs?

I challenge anyone who supports a chained CPI to go to Walter Reed hospital, visit with the men and women who have lost their legs, lost their arms, lost their eyesight as a result of their service in Afghanistan or Iraq. Come Veterans Day and come Memorial Day, all the politicians go out and give speeches of how much we love our veterans. It is great to give a good speech on Memorial Day or Veterans Day but what about standing up for them now?

I know the Wall Street CEOs and the big money lobbyists are descending on Washington trying to protect the wealthy and the powerful. But maybe now is the time--not just Veterans Day, not just Memorial Day--that we stand with veterans, we stand with disabled veterans. They have sacrificed, and I think it is unseemly, I think it is immoral to be balancing the budget on their backs.

We have also made a commitment to the surviving spouses and children who have lost a loved one in battle by providing them with Dependency Indemnity Compensation benefits that average less than $17,000 a year. Do my colleagues truly think we should be cutting benefits for surviving spouses who lost their husband in Iraq or Afghanistan?

Further, we have made a promise to every American; that is, that above and beyond benefits for disabled vets, what we have said is a couple things: For those who are older, we have said Social Security will be there for them in their old age, in their time of need or if they become disabled, and we have said those benefits will also keep up with inflation.

Today, over 9 million veterans receive Social Security benefits as part of the tens of millions of Americans who receive Social Security, and more than 770,000 veterans receive Social Security disability benefits.

We are talking now about the ``Greatest generation,'' the people who saved this country in World War II. I just met last week--and it chokes me up every time I meet these guys--a fellow from Winooski, VT, who was in the Battle of the Bulge, that hugely important battle at the end of World War II to stop the Nazi advance. He was also at Normandy.

Do you truly want to balance the budget on his back?

We are talking about the brave men and women who served in Korea, Vietnam, and other conflicts as well.

Let us be clear what this chained CPI would do because I think there are some people--I guess if someone is a Wall Street CEO guy and is making millions of dollars a year and has a great retirement package, when we are talking about hundreds of dollars a year, that is what they use for lunch. They do not have to worry about keeping their house warm or buying food. That is not within their world view.

Under the chained CPI--we should all understand this is no small tweak; this is not some administrative issue--under the chained CPI, average seniors who retire at age 65 would see their Social Security benefits cut by about $650 a year when they reach age 75. Again, I understand if someone is a Wall Street CEO, if one is a millionaire, hey, $650 a year is not a lot of money. But let me tell you, if you are a senior citizen living in Vermont or Minnesota and you have to worry about heating your home, you have to worry about putting gas in your car, you have to worry about prescription drugs, $650 a year is a lot of money, if you are living on $15-, $16-, $18,000 a year of income, most of that coming from Social Security. So if you retire at age 65, it is about a $650 cut when you reach age 75, and it is more than $1,000 a year when you turn 85.

I ask unanimous consent to have printed in the Record a chart which talks about annual cuts in Social Security benefits under the chained CPI.

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Mr. SANDERS. What the chart shows is that at age 75 the cut would be $653, a 3.7-percent cut; at age 85 it would be $1,139, a 6.5-percent cut; and at age 95, it would be $1,1611, a 9.2-percent cut.

The rich are getting richer. We have growing wealth and income inequality in America. The wealthiest people in this country are paying the lowest effective tax rate in decades. We are going to balance the budget on the backs of seniors trying to get by on $15,000, $18,000 a year? Is that what this Congress stands for? I certainly hope not.

The fact of the matter is, the current formula for calculating COLAs is not too generous. And whenever I speak in Vermont, I say to seniors--and I speak to them quite often--there are some folks in Washington who think that your COLA--the formulation and how we reach a COLA for you--is too generous. Do you know what happens. They laugh. They invariably break out in laughter because they know that in the last 3 years, two out of those years they got zero COLA. They know this year they are going to get a 1.7-percent COLA, which is one of the lowest COLA increases ever.

They also know the current formulation for a COLA does not fully take into account the escalating costs of prescription drugs and health care, which is where most seniors spend their money. They are not spending their money on flat-screen TVs or iPhones or iPads. They are spending their money heating their homes, buying food, paying for prescription drugs, and paying for health care. These costs are going up much faster than general inflation. I think what most economists would tell you is that the current formulation for determining COLAs with Social Security is inadequate, too low, rather than, as the advocates of the chained CPI would suggest, that they are too high.

Furthermore--this has not been widely discussed--moving to a chained CPI would also result in an across-the-board tax increase of more than $60 billion over the next 10 years that will disproportionately hurt low-income and middle-income families the most. In fact, two-thirds of the tax increase under a chained CPI would impact Americans earning less than $100,000 a year, and many would be impacted by losing the earned income tax credit and the childcare tax credit.

Maybe I am missing something, but I thought I heard from the White House and here on the floor of the Senate that we are not going to raise taxes for people earning less than $250,000 a year. Maybe I am wrong. But I thought I heard that many times. Well, if you vote for the chained CPI, in fact you are raising taxes on a whole lot of people, including low-income working families. Under the chained CPI, low-income workers would see their taxes go up by 14 1/2 percent, mainly by cutting the earned income tax credit and the refundable childcare tax credit. So if we are going to keep faith with what we have said here, I say to my Democratic and Republican friends: No tax increases for workers making less than $250,000 a year. We better reject this chained CPI.

Furthermore, I must tell you that I am disappointed, because I thought I heard a few weeks ago my friends in the White House telling us that Social Security--telling us truthfully, correctly--has nothing to do with deficit reduction, because Social Security is funded by the payroll tax, and that Social Security should be off the table in terms of deficit reduction. I heard that many, many times. So I wonder how Social Security has suddenly gotten back on the table, including a chained CPI, with devastating cuts to seniors and disabled vets.

I think we should deal with Social Security. I think Senator Dick Durbin made a good point: Let's deal with it. Let's deal with it separately. Let's determine how, in a fair way, we can make Social Security solvent for the next 50 or 75 years without cutting benefits.

I have ideas on that, Senator Begich has ideas on that, Senator Harkin and others. And the Presiding Officer has been thinking about ways that we make Social Security solvent and strong for 75 years without cutting benefits. Let's have that discussion, but not as part of a deficit reduction bill when Social Security has had nothing to do with deficit reduction.

I do not often quote Ronald Reagan, but this is what Ronald Reagan said on October 7, 1984. He was absolutely right. Ronald Reagan:

Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit. Social Security is totally funded by the payroll tax levied on employer and employee. If you reduce the outgo of Social Security, that money would not go into the general fund to reduce the deficit, it would go into the Social Security Trust Fund, so Social Security has nothing to do with planning the budget or erasing or lowering the deficit.

October 7, 1984. Reagan was right. I have to tell you that when Barack Obama was campaigning for President in 2008, he told the AARP on September 6, 2008, that:

John McCain's campaign has suggested that the best answer for the growing pressures on Social Security might be to cut cost of living adjustments or raise the retirement age. Let me be clear. I will do neither.

September 6, 2008, Barack Obama. One of the astounding things about Congress and the inside-the-beltway mentality is how out of touch it is with what the American people are thinking and what the American people are believing. Yesterday there was a poll in the Washington Post. I ask unanimous consent that that poll be printed at the conclusion of my remarks.

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MR. SANDERS. What that poll said--I hope my colleagues are listening--this is yesterday in the Washington Post, and this is absolutely consistent with every other poll I have seen--60 percent of the American people believe it would be unacceptable to change the way Social Security benefits are calculated so that benefits increase at a slower rate than they do now in order to strike a budget deal. Only 34 percent would find this acceptable. Sixty percent of the American people believe it would be unacceptable to raise the age of Medicare eligibility, 68 percent of the American people believe it would be unacceptable to cut spending on Medicaid. But 74 percent of the American people said in this poll that they would accept raising taxes on Americans with incomes of over $250,000 a year. This is consistent with every other poll that is out there. The American people are saying: Wait a minute. The middle class, the working class is hurting. Do not cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid. That is what they said yesterday in the poll.

What they also said, at a time when the rich are getting richer, yes, they should be asked to contribute more in taxes. I mentioned earlier that to the best of my knowledge, every single veterans organization has made it clear that they are strongly opposed to the so-called chained CPI, which would cut benefits for disabled vets.

The AARP and the every other seniors organization, including the groups to protect Social Security, the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare, and others are saying do not cut Social Security benefits. The AFL-CIO has been very vigorous in protecting working families and saying do not cut Social Security, do not cut Medicare, do not cut Medicaid.

Here we are, the American people overwhelmingly want the wealthy to pay more in taxes and not cut Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid, organizations representing tens of millions of people are saying, ask the wealthy to pay more in taxes, not cut Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

What are we talking about here? We are talking about cutting Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, and asking the wealthy to pay more but nowhere near as much as they should be asked to pay.

We wonder. We wonder why Congress has a 9-percent favorability rating. I will tell you that my phones today--and I do not think this is an organized effort, by the way--my phones in my office--and you might want to check your offices, but my office phones are bouncing off the hook from people in Vermont and all over this country saying: Do not cut Social Security.

So I would say to the American people, right now a deal is being hatched which would cut Social Security and benefits for disabled veterans, raising taxes on low-income workers. If you think that is a bad idea, you might want to get ahold of your Senator or Member of the House.

Let me conclude by saying, in my view, deficit reduction is a serious issue. We, as you know, have already cut $1.5 trillion in programs as a result of the agreements in 2010 and 2011, and up to this point the millionaires and billionaires have not contributed one nickel--one nickel--more in taxes. So deficit reduction is a serious issue. I look forward to playing an active role in making sure that we address that serious problem. But I will do everything in my power to make sure we do not balance the budget on the backs of veterans, the elderly, the children, the sick, and the poor, and low-income working people

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