Hard times put benefits at risk
“Biden and House GOP are at an Impasse as Nation Hits Key Debt Ceiling Deadline”
This headline recently introduced a story in the weekly Friday Alert of the Alliance for Retired Americans.
The Alliance for Retired Americans is an AFL-CIO-affiliated organization formed 25 years ago to advocate for the interests of union retirees and has chapters in most states and some cities. As a member of the organization’s national executive board, I am tasked with coordinating outreach with UFT retirees and other NYSUT retirees in the rest of the state.
The Alliance for Retired Americans is rightly on alert to this sleeper issue. This manufactured crisis is of great concern to retirees. Except for a failed right-wing, ideologically based attempt in 2013 to enforce the debt ceiling that ended with a disruptive 16-day government shutdown, the federal government has raised the debt ceiling each year so it can pay its obligations for programs already enacted. Raising the amount the government can borrow does not add any new expenses.
Under the previous administration, the debt ceiling was appropriately raised three times in displays of bipartisanship. But far-right legislators see an opportunity this year to use the debt ceiling as leverage to push through their own ideological agenda.
The Alliance for Retired Americans characterizes the resulting standoff this way:
The U.S. Congress on Jan. 19 basically ignored a debt-ceiling deadline. A long, politically charged standoff between the new House majority on one side and the U.S. Senate and the Biden administration on the other is forecast. Why should you and I be concerned? With the threat of recession looming, anything that destabilizes financial markets can have a bad ripple effect. When things go bad, we are caught up in finger pointing and threats of cuts. Retirees’ pensions, health coverage and other benefits are attacked and targeted even though we worked our whole careers to earn these benefits, often in lieu of higher wages. Things might wend their way to a resolution, but at what price to seniors and others?
With Republicans in Congress refusing to raise the debt ceiling, the nation recently hit the $31.4 trillion debt limit, forcing the Treasury Department to start taking extraordinary measures to allow the government to continue paying its bills for another few months.
Many ultra-conservative members of the House’s Freedom Caucus are demanding that Congress not raise the debt ceiling unless the Biden administration agrees to their demands to slash Social Security, Medicare and other spending. In 2011, a similar standoff led to a nosedive in stock prices, spiking mortgage rates and a drop in consumer confidence.
Opponents of established benefits that retirees have earned like to use the term “entitlements” in a derogatory way as they try to dismantle them. Hard economic times can gain them perverse support from a suffering public. Remember the old joke: Don’t talk about your pension on the supermarket line or you’ll never make it out to the parking lot alive. There’s some truth there. Our benefits survive in a context of social well-being. Economic disaster endangers them. This crisis demands our attention; for self-preservation if for no other reason.