Social Security could be a ‘front-burner issue’ in November’s election. How the results may influence the program

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As the November elections midterm elections approach, leaders on both sides of the aisle are trading barbs on one key program that affects millions of Americans — Social Security.

Over the weekend, President Joe Biden called out certain lawmakers on Twitter, including Republican Senators Rick Scott of Florida and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, for their plans for the program.

Scott “wants to require Congress to vote on the future of Social Security every 5 years,” Biden tweeted. Meanwhile, Johnson “wants Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block every year,” the president said in a separate tweet.

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“If Congress isn’t forced to fix it, Social Security will go broke in 2035. You’re damn right that I have a plan to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Scott tweeted in response.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s team rejected the president’s claims that he is trying to weaken the program.

“President Biden’s tweet is false,” said Alexa Henning, a spokeswoman for Sen. Johnson. “The senator is trying to save these programs, not put them on the chopping block.”

Social Security can pay full benefits for 13 years, at which point 80% of benefits will be payable, according to the latest projections from the program’s trustees.

More than 65 million Americans currently rely on monthly Social Security checks, including retirees, spouses, widows and widowers, children and disabled workers.

But just how much sway the program will have with voters in November, amid economic worries like high inflation and a potential recession, remains to be seen.

Securing Social Security ranked fifth among the public’s top policy priorities for 2022, according to a January survey from the Pew Research Center, behind strengthening the economy, reducing health-care costs, dealing the with the coronavirus outbreak and improving education.

“I don’t see Social Security playing a big role in people’s decisions on voting in the midterms,” said Jason Fichtner, chief economist at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Why Social Security may be a ‘front-burner issue’

Nevertheless, Democrats and advocates for the program are racing to get their message out.

Jon Bauman, president of the Social Security Works Political Action Committee, said he expects to be traveling from coast to coast to more than 40 candidate events to help make sure those who promise to protect and expand Social Security get elected.

Bauman, who has been campaigning for the program since 2004, calls Social Security a “front-burner issue for this election.”

“There’s been a Republican Party offensive during this cycle against Social Security,” Bauman said.

That goes particularly as proposals from leaders like Scott and Johnson would force more frequent evaluations of the status of the program, which advocates fear would lead either to benefit cuts or privatizing the program.

Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., and other lawmakers discuss the Social Security 2100 Act, which would include increased minimum benefits, on Capitol Hill on Oct. 26, 2021.
Drew Angerer | Getty Images News | Getty Images

For Bauman, also known as “Bowzer” from the musical group and 1970s TV series “Sha Na Na,” the mission is personal.

“I saw firsthand that when my dad passed away it was my mom’s Social Security and her Medicare that allowed her to live a life of dignity and independence that my grandparents never lived,” Bauman said.

Meanwhile, Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., has been promoting his bill, Social Security 2100: A Sacred Trust, that calls for generous benefit expansions.

The proposal currently has more than 200 Democratic co-sponsors. Washington leaders who support the bill hope to bring it up for a vote this fall.

Key developments to watch ahead of the election

As Election Day approaches, one key Social Security development to watch will be the October announcement of the cost-of-living adjustment for 2023, Fichtner noted.

Based on recent inflation data, that could be the highest increase in about 40 years.

For Democrats, that’s a “double-edged sword,” Fichtner said. On the one hand, having such high inflation does not look good for the Biden administration. On the other, it shows the program provides some protection for beneficiaries from rising costs.

Then, the results of the Nov. 8 ballots could mark a shift for the Social Security agenda.

“If the House switches to Republican control in the midterm … the ability for Democrats to push through an agenda basically stops,” Fichtner said.

While that could stymie Democrat-led Social Security proposals, it may also force the bipartisan cooperation needed to actually move bipartisan reform towards the finish line, Fichtner said.

“That sets up a potential with President Biden for a negotiation on Social Security reform where he can help drive it,” Fichtner said.

“What better way to actually have a legacy for a Democrat than to say you secured Social Security for the next 75 years?” he said.

Whether that happens may depend on another key factor: whether Biden is a one- or two-term president.

If Biden decides to run for re-election, his negotiating power may be substantially reduced ahead of the 2024 election, Fichtner predicts.

Sophie Tremblay

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