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Mr. BEGICH. Mr. President, I am pleased to be here today with my friend and colleague, Senator Murray, to talk about Social Security. I am going to spend a few moments discussing a bill we are introducing today and then turn it over to Senator Murray.
As you know, Social Security is one of the most important programs ever established in this country. After 75 years, Social Security continues to deliver as intended. It is a promise to Americans. The promise is simple. If you work hard all your life and contribute to the system, then Social Security will be there to help make ends meet when you retire or help out the family if a worker dies or is disabled.
Let me be clear. Despite the naysayers, Social Security is not a handout. Social Security benefits are linked directly to the amount that retirees pay into the system through a lifetime of hard work. But times have changed and we need to make sure the promise of Social Security continues in a meaningful way. That is why Senator Murray and I introduced the Retirement and Income Security Act yesterday, which we like to call the RAISE Act. It is a commonsense bill to update, enhance, and protect Social Security in a fiscally responsible way.
When it comes to fairness, this bill is a small but important step for seniors, for older women, and for the families of deceased or disabled workers. It makes sure that the modest benefits of Social Security will go to everyone who deserves them.
The RAISE Act has three major components.
It will, first, improve Social Security benefits for divorced spouses. Under current law, the divorced spouse only gets benefits from a former spouse's earnings if they were married for at least 10 years. Under our bill, eligibility rules would be phased in beginning at 5 years of marriage. The spouse would be entitled to 60 percent of the benefits after 6 years of marriage, 70 percent after 7 years, and so on.
Second, our bill will enhance benefits for widows and widowers. It establishes a new enhanced benefit for widows and widowers where both spouses have retired. An alternative calculation in the bill will use both spouses' benefits--deceased and surviving--rather than just the survivor's benefit. The surviving spouse will receive either their current benefit or the new alternative, whichever is greater.
The third component of the RAISE Act extends eligibility for children of retired, disabled or deceased workers. This provision would apply if the child is still in high school, college or vocational or career school. Under current law, minors and high school students under the age of 19 can get Social Security benefits if their parent is a retired, disabled or deceased worker. Beginning in 2016, this provision extends benefits for full-time students up to the age of 23.
Even though Social Security continues to fully pay for itself and has never added a dime to the deficit, I know some of our colleagues will complain that we cannot afford these small enhancements. That is why our bill asks those Americans who can most afford it to pay their fair share towards the strengthening of the Social Security trust fund.
Beginning in 2015, the RAISE Act would apply a 2-percent payroll tax on annual earnings over $400,000. This means that, for future generations, Social Security will continue to be fully funded. In future years, that threshold will increase under an indexing formula built into the bill.
I am a proud sponsor of this bill with Senator Murray. It was an easy decision for me, since my commitment to bolstering Social Security started from day one in the Senate. I have already introduced two other bills on Social Security, and I want to just mention them briefly before I turn it over to Senator Murray.
The first bill is my Protecting and Preserving Social Security Act. It would extend the solvency of Social Security by lifting the cap on high-income contributions, which this year is $117,000. Not everyone knows this, but once your annual income hits that threshold, you no longer have to contribute to Social Security for the rest of the calendar year. This seems unfair to me. My bill would lift the cap and phase out what effectively has become a tax loophole. Higher income Americans would pay into Social Security all year long--just like everyone else. This provision would add generations of financial certainty to Social Security.
The bill would also improve benefits for seniors and others by establishing new cost-of-living adjustments based on reality. The formula would better reflect seniors' financial needs by basing the adjustments on items such as prescription drugs and housing, which seniors pay for, instead of electronics and new cars.
My second bill is the Social Security Fairness Act. It would repeal unfair reductions to Social Security benefits for people who have worked part of their career in noncovered jobs--often State or local government or other civil service jobs.
Congress passed the Windfall Elimination Provision and Government Pension Offset in the 1980s because of fears workers who retire under other pensions would be double covered and Social Security could not afford it. But in effect those old laws are punishing people by reducing benefits they rightfully have earned.
Today, these provisions affect more than 2 million people nationwide, and the number is growing. It is not just about getting back what you paid into the system. Removing these penalties would also encourage people willing to work in public service as a second career--such as police officers or teachers. If you are considering such a move today but know your Social Security benefit would be reduced or penalized because you had stepped forward and worked in public service, why would you do it?
Let's remember one thing about all of these bills--the two I introduced earlier and the RAISE Act we are discussing today. Social Security benefits are vitally important but also are very modest. Nationally, they average $13,500 a year for recipients. It is very important to my State. More than 71,000 people in my State of Alaska rely on Social Security. That is roughly 1 out of 10 Alaskans. Social Security lifts tens of thousands of Alaskans out of poverty--the elderly and especially elderly women--and it pumps more than $1 billion into our economy every single year.
No one is getting rich off of Social Security, but it does provide an important foundation, and it does so in a truly American way: You work, you contribute, and you get something back. As long as I am in Congress, I will fight to make sure Social Security is solvent and there for not only this generation but for generations to come.
Senator Murray has been a longtime champion for Social Security, and I am proud to stand with her on the floor today. Our RAISE Act is another modest improvement. I hope our colleagues will join us in standing up for this critically important program.
Our Social Security system reflects the best of America: hard work, personal responsibility, human dignity, and caring for our parents, our children, our spouses, and our neighbors and ourselves.
Let's come together in this Chamber and do all we can to make sure Social Security is working for all Americans.
With that, I yield the floor for my colleague, Senator Murray.
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