Senator Bernie Sanders returns to work next week with a promise to maintain benefits for veterans and Social Security recipients.
Sanders – who was just re-elected to his second term by an overwhelming majority – is a senior member of the Veterans’ Affairs Committee. So he says one of his top priorities in Washington is to fight efforts to recalibrate how Social Security and veterans’ benefits are calculated.
The issue is the cost of living adjustments that raise benefits to track inflation. Sanders says deficit hawks in Washington want to switch to a system that would limit benefits to reduce the federal debt.
"Deficit reduction is a serious issue. It’s an issue we’ve got to deal with, but you don’t deal with it by telling the men and women who put their lives on the line to defend this country, the men and women who today are suffering because of their service to the country, in terms of losing limbs, or suffering disabilities, we don’t say to them that we’re going to balance the budget by cutting benefits to you," he says.
Sanders says the bi-partisan Simpson-Bowles commission – chaired by retired Republican Senator Alan Simpson and Democrat Erskine Bowles – has led the fight for a revised consumer price index. It’s called "chain CPI" and Sanders says if it’s implemented, it would significantly reduce benefits over time.
The Vermont Senator says the issue may come up as Congress confronts the so-called fiscal cliff – a series of mandated cuts and tax increases that would take effect at the beginning of the year unless lawmakers act.
"There are fair ways to go about deficit reduction, and we’ve been talking about that for a long time: having to do with asking the wealthy and large corporations to start paying their fair share of taxes, ending tax havens in the Cayman Islands and Bermuda," he says.
Sanders was joined on the conference call by advocates and veterans groups fighting the change. Max Richtman is president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
He says that the proposed chain CPI would make big changes in the cost of living adjustments – or COLA – for Social Security and veterans programs.
"According to the polling we’ve done 72 percent of all Americans including voters of all ages, all political persuasions oppose reducing the COLA," he says. "That’s why supporters of the chain CPI have downplayed its impact on Americans by calling it a ‘technical adjustment.’"
Sanders says he’s heard from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid that no major changes to Social Security will be considered as Congress tackles the deficit.
Sanders returns to Washington with Democrats still in control of the Senate. But Sanders – who is an independent but caucuses with the Democrats – will have company in his outsider role. Maine Senator elect Angus King is also an independent, and Sanders says he plans to call him to offer some insights.