Legislative Update For The Week Ending September 23, 2011

Legislative Update For The Week Ending September 23, 2011

This week, members of The Senior Citizens League’s (TSCL) legislative staff were in attendance at two committee hearings – one held by the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health, and one held by the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction. In addition, TSCL saw support grow for a key piece of legislation.

Support Grows for Social Security Fairness Act

Eight new Members of Congress signed on to the Social Security Fairness Act (H.R. 1332) this week, bringing the cosponsor total up to 116. If signed into law, the Social Security Fairness Act would repeal the government pension offset (GPO) and the windfall elimination provision (WEP) of the Social Security Act.

TSCL believes that these two provisions unfairly reduce the earned benefits of millions of seniors each year. We were pleased to see support grow for the Social Security Fairness Act this week.

“Super Committee” Holds Second Hearing

On Thursday, the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction held their second public hearing, which focused on revenue options and reforming the tax code. The Committee heard testimony from Thomas Barthold, Chief of Staff of the nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxations.

Throughout the hearing, Barthold urged the Committee Members to address the corporate and individual tax codes. For both, he recommended total overhaul.

Most Committee Members seemed to agree with him but as the hearing went on, it became clear just how difficult the task will become under strict time constraints and in a politically-charged environment. Most Members shifted their focus toward reforming the corporate code, since it will likely be more politically feasible. Co-chair Jeb Hensarling (TX) stated, "Fundamental tax reform, even if limited to American businesses, can result in both revenues for economic growth and jobs for the American people." By lowering the corporate tax rate from 35 percent to 25 percent and by eliminating loopholes, Hensarling said that 2.1 million jobs would be created over ten years.

Members on both sides of the aisle seemed eager to tackle corporate tax reform, but there was a clear divide on the panel when it came to the Social Security payroll tax holiday. Co-chair Patty Murray (WA) and Senate Minority Whip Jon Kyl (AZ) both seemed skeptical about President Obama's recent proposal to cut the payroll tax in half for both employees and employers next year. When asked whether short-term tax cuts typically succeed in stimulating the economy, Barthold responded "yes" without hesitation. However, he said that such short-term cuts for employers generally do not lead to job creation.

Social Security arose again at the hearing when Committee Member James Clyburn (SC) commented on the payroll tax cap, which is currently set at $106,800. He suggested that the cap be raised to cover 90 percent of income – as it did in the early 1980s – in an effort to restore the program to solvency. Some Members scowled disapprovingly at this proposal and it is still unclear whether the Committee will even touch Social Security, but if they do, this option could appear on the short-list. Clyburn asked Barthold to research the potential effects of raising the wage cap and to report back to the Joint Committee.

Some issues of controversy inevitably arose at Thursday's hearing, but common ground was also found on the important issue of corporate tax reform. The Joint Committee, which must hold a vote on its final proposal before Thanksgiving, will likely hold a third public hearing in the coming weeks. TSCL will continue to monitor its progress.

Health Subcommittee Hears from Medicare Providers

On Wednesday, the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee held a hearing focusing on a number of Medicare provider payment provisions that are set to expire at the end of this year. The Subcommittee heard from an expert panel of witnesses, which included Richard Umbdenstock, President of the American Hospital Association, and Robert Wah, Chairman of the Board of Trustees at the American Medical Association.

The witnesses at this hearing defended a number of payment provisions that may expire if Congress doesn’t act soon, including add-on payments for mental health and ambulance services, and hold harmless payments for rural hospitals. When looked at separately the costs of these provisions seem minor, but if each of them were to expire at the end of this year, the federal government would save $25 billion. The potential savings attracted most at the hearing, but Ranking Member Pete Stark (CA) reminded the Subcommittee that many of the provisions “ensure critical access to needy Medicare beneficiaries.”

Throughout the hearing, the “big dog” in the room – as one witness referred to it – was the Sustainable Growth Rate (SGR). Each of the witnesses urged the Subcommittee Members to replace the current Medicare physician payment formula with a new model, saying that there’s simply too much uncertainty surrounding the SGR. Though most seemed to agree, the price tag of repealing the SGR is daunting and the process of re-writing a billing system with 8,000 different codes will certainly take time.

It’s unknown whether or not Congress will tackle the SGR before the end of the year, but most Subcommittee Members at Wednesday’s hearing did seem set on providing extensions for the other payment provisions that are nearing expiration.