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Energy and Water Development and Related Agencies Appropriations Act, 2012

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Ms. CANTWELL. Mr. President, I thank my colleague, the senior Senator from Maryland, for her leadership on this issue for protecting seniors and protecting women. It seems to me every time we have a battle that is about undercutting the benefits to women in America, Barbara Mikulski is on the Senate floor or in the halls and in various meeting rooms making sure that America knows what these proposals are.

I could not have been more proud of her when she led all the women Senators on the Democratic side of the aisle to push back on the Bush Administration's proposal to privatize Social Security. At that point in time, she most succinctly told Americans that women, more than any other in that age group, would suffer because they live longer, they depend on Social Security, and if Social Security was privatized, women would feel the brunt of it.

So I am proud to be out here this afternoon with her to talk about this proposal that has been--we cannot tell, because we do not know. We are not on the supercommittee. But it seems to be floating around in various forms, various organizations may be talking about it, the notion that we would change Social Security.

I know at home in my State of Washington, people seem to be confused when we are talking about our budgets. And we are obviously having to make tough budget decisions, as are people around dining room tables, around city halls, around our State capitols and here in Congress are having discussions about how to have a budget to live within our means.

But when you talk to them about the primary way--and one proposal that surfaced in the last budget negotiations in July was to automatically take $300 billion of cuts right off the top as the major proposal out of a concept called chained CPI. When you think about that, the first shot of budget cuts would be on the backs of seniors, it is almost as if someone thought seniors cooked up exotic financial instruments and foisted them on the U.S. economy and somehow they should pay the price. We know that is not the case.

So why are people targeting these seniors now? And we are not sure if they are. We have just heard various rumors that perhaps this notion of chained CPI, a change in Social Security benefits as my colleague just outlined, would be a proposal.

I am here to say, I am not for having the seniors in America share the brunt of sacrifice with a proposal such as this that would clearly be on the backs of seniors. It is not something they can afford. I know some of my colleagues may have endorsed a chained CPI, a change in the consumer price index to calculate inflation. But that is a cut that would increase over time. And literally, the longer you live, the more you are penalized. It is such a disproportionate impact to women who do live longer than men and count on those benefits for their living.

In my State, changes to the cost-of-living adjustment would hurt more than 1 million Washingtonians. Social Security has kept about 30 percent of Washington residents who are 65 and older out of poverty. That is what it has done for them. And what is more, 25 percent of seniors in my State live on Social Security alone. So there is a population that is depending on Social Security, and they are living on it alone, or it is making up--another 21 percent of them--it makes up 90 percent of their income.

I think this demonstrates that we cannot support these kinds of cuts, especially at the magnitude this proposal is talking about. The Social Security Office of the Actuary has reported that chained CPI would reduce the COLA by about .3 percent a year. So let's look at that example. A single woman, 65 years old in Washington State, would get a monthly benefit of about $1,100 a month or $13,300 annually.

By age 80, if chained CPI would pass, that would result in a $56 per month or $672 annual cut in that benefit. So that is less food, that is less medicine, that is less vital care for these seniors. If that individual actually lived to 90 years old, it would be an $87 a month cut and a $1,044 cut annually. If you think about the costs these seniors endure--and I for one have proposed changing the market basket of goods that the CPI is based on, because if you think about it, we have a market basket of goods for their CPI that are what the overall economy looks at.

But seniors have a much more expensive market basket of goods. They have to buy more medicine. They have other additional out-of-pocket health care expenses. And so their costs are going up at a higher rate. But this proposal, if you think about it, the average monthly cost of food for a single elderly individual is about $231 per month. That is what the average is, about $53 a week. That is based on data from the Elder Economic Security Standard Index. So an individual at 80 basically means they would have 1 week less groceries under chained CPI.

That is what it means. They would have 1 week left of groceries every month.

In my State, when you think about the average out-of-pocket health care expenses seniors have for care, that average out-of-pocket expense rises by $1,400 for an individual. If you think about it alone, the increase in health care out-of-pocket expenses basically wipes out where many seniors are for any kinds of remaining income. Certainly, if we put this kind of cut on top of that, it would make it clear that seniors would be getting less from Social Security. We recently, for the first time since 2009, gave seniors an increase to their cost-of-living adjustment. Now what are we going to do--go backward and take it away? For 75 years, Americans have been paying into Social Security with the promise that they would receive these benefits in their retirement years. Now is not a time to break that promise.

I think my colleague has clearly come to the floor with a message to our other colleagues who aren't here this afternoon, to say take a look at the details of this proposal. This is not a simple proposal about in the future someone is going to get less than they might under some other plan; this is about a cut in the benefit formula today that would impact seniors if implemented.

So I am here with my colleague to say our economic situation has not been caused by seniors coming to Capitol Hill and proposing that we have opaque derivative markets. It wasn't caused by seniors coming and saying: Let's go ahead and have the banks get rid of Glass-Steagall so the banks can do whatever they want. Seniors didn't come here and foist this economic situation on us. Yet, where are the other proposals to help fix that? Yet, the No. 1 proposal we saw circulating in July was, right off the bat, $300 billion coming off the backs of seniors. That same proposal is still circulating in the Halls of Congress. My colleague and I are here this afternoon to say that it is not the proposal we should be considering.

So I hope our other colleagues will stand up to protect seniors, particularly women, who are living longer, and make sure they have these important Social Security benefits.

I thank the Chair and yield the floor.


Ms. CANTWELL. I can tell the Senator from Maryland that there are lots of ideas that people are suggesting. I don't know the details of the supercommittee or to say the Finance Committee is backing up the supercommittee on those ideas. I know we have to live within our budget, and we have to make some tough decisions.

There are many positives in the health care law that are about allowing seniors to stay in their homes and receive care as opposed to going into nursing homes, which is very positive and helps reduce significantly the cost of health care. There are things in there that will help us get more transparency on drug prices. Many of us would like to have direct negotiations on drug prices and drive the costs down even further for seniors. And obviously there are reforms that will help us get more efficient in the delivery system. Those are things you can accentuate by moving more quickly.

I know the Presiding Officer, coming from Minnesota, with the Mayo Clinic, certainly understands about outcome-based health care, preventive medicine, and those things seniors would like to see in reform that actually deliver better care and drive down costs. Those are the proposals that I think we should be discussing, that are positive for seniors, will help seniors, and will deliver the kind of care that is more efficient and cost-effective. But asking them to take it right on the chin with something like this proposal, as my colleague outlined as well, is something we are not willing to do.

I thank the Chair and the Senator from Maryland for her tireless leadership on behalf of women in America and making sure they can make do in this tough economy.

I yield the floor and suggest the absence of a quorum.


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