Legislative Update: May 2017

Legislative Update: May 2017

Failing To Lift The Debt Limit Would Put Social Security Checks On Hold

By Jessie Gibbons, Senior Policy Analyst

While Congress was busy debating the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires, the federal government hit the debt ceiling on March 15th.  Since then, the Treasury Department has been using “extraordinary measures” – like postponing contributions to retirement accounts for federal employees – to buy time and prevent a default on federal debts, including the money that the U.S. Treasury owes to the Social Security Trust Fund.

But those “extraordinary measures” can only last so long.  Without congressional action, the Treasury Department will run out of borrowing authority in just a few months and it won’t have the funds needed to pay the country’s bills – including Social Security benefits and Medicare reimbursements.

If Congress fails to prevent a default on the federal debt, older Americans will be impacted in two major ways.  First, Social Security benefits would be delayed, and millions of seniors living on fixed incomes would suffer financially.  Second, health plans that cover Medicare beneficiaries and providers who treat Medicare patients would likely see postponements in their reimbursements from the federal government.  Access to quality medical care could become more difficult for older Americans if that occurs.

Another concern about congressional inaction on the debt ceiling is the potential for cuts to programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.  In recent debates, Social Security benefits have been used as a bargaining chip and have been held hostage to the debt limit increase.  Some retirees have felt the sting of unexpected benefit cuts.  In 2015, following the passage of the Bipartisan Budget Act, millions of seniors, already eligible for Social Security benefits, learned that an important claiming method called “file and suspend” – a particularly important protection for women who tend to have lower benefits than men – would no longer be an option to them.

The unexpected change received no prior public debate, it went into effect almost immediately, and it hit seniors who were just months away from claiming benefits.  In a poll recently conducted by TSCL, 70% of respondents said they viewed the change as an “unnecessary benefit cut” rather than a “closure of an unintended loophole,” as portrayed by Congress.

In March, TSCL delivered letters to several leaders in Congress – including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (KY), House Speaker Paul Ryan (WI-1), and House Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows (NC-11) – requesting their immediate action on the looming debt ceiling crisis.  Art Cooper, the Chairman of TSCL’s Board of Trustees, wrote: “Our supporters nation-wide hope you will act swiftly and responsibly to avert delays in Social Security benefits and payments to Medicare providers, and they will not tolerate additional cuts to their earned Social Security benefits.”

TSCL is disappointed that Congress has not yet taken action to avert an irresponsible default on the federal debt, and we urge our members and supporters to contact your representatives in Congress to request a clean and immediate increase in the debt ceiling.  For updates on the status of this important issue, visit TSCL’s website at www.SeniorsLeague.org, or find us on Facebook and Twitter.