By Brian Boyd
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank said Thursday defense cuts and increased taxes on millionaires should be the priority in deficit reduction, not cuts in social benefits.
Frank, the Newton Democrat, spoke to labor and community activists at a meeting organized by the AFL-CIO and by the Greater Southeastern Massachusetts Labor Council to oppose cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
A congressional "supercommittee" must propose at least $1.2 trillion in cuts by Thanksgiving, and the activists were calling on Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a committee member, to hold the line against such benefit cuts.
"We should not be told that we have to reduce two of the great achievements of the United States in the 20th century, Medicare and Social Security," Frank told a friendly crowd of about two dozen.
Before those programs came into existence, most Americans faced the prospect of poverty when they reached old age, he said.
While increasing the age of eligibility and cutting the cost-of-living adjustment to Social Security have been discussed, Frank said the U.S. still has troops stationed in Germany to defend against a Soviet threat that no longer exists.
Several other activists spoke at the meeting, describing the harm they say would come to seniors and working families if these social programs were cut.
James Pimental, an organizer with the Bricklayers and Allied Craftsmen Union Local 3, said increasing the retirement age would be especially hard on construction workers.
"Most construction workers are busted up by the age of 60 years old," Pimental said. "And is it too much to ask that they be able to retire without being half crippled?"
Instead, he would prefer the government lift the cap that limits payroll tax contributions -- which fund Social Security and Medicare -- to the first $106,800 of gross wages.
If the 12-member supercommittee fails to reach an agreement, automatic spending cuts will be triggered. Frank was skeptical that the members will come to agreement by the deadline, but he wasn't optimistic even if they did have a plan.
"I don't have hopes that they will do the right thing, and I would rather they do nothing than the wrong thing," Frank said after the meeting.
If the automatic cuts kick in, he said he will fight lawmakers who want to change the law to exempt defense spending from those cuts. And he thinks he would find allies among tea party lawmakers in battling any attempts to change the deficit reduction.
Frank also said he was "deeply disappointed" that he would no longer represent New Bedford under a proposed new congressional map. He said he has made friends and invested his efforts in local issues, such as the fishing industry.
"A lot of my work has gone into this and I'm very disappointed," he said.