What Washington Politicians Really Mean When They Talk About Our Benefits

This originally appeared at The Huffington Post.

This week before the President's State of the Union address, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said that the President won't advocate for raising the age of Medicare beneficiaries but that he's absolutely willing to cut our Social Security benefits.  Carney's tune dramatically changed the narrative from the 2012 campaign by saying said that the President wouldn't "ask seniors to bear the burden of further deficit reduction alone."  During the 2012 election candidates from both political parties said they wouldn't ask seniors to bear the burden of deficit reduction at all.  Now the President's spokesman says he'd do so, asking seniors on fixed incomes, many of whom rely solely on Social Security, to give up some of their modest benefit they've earned.

As we head in to the latest debate on sequestration, today AARP continues to show Congress, the President and Americans that resorting to a draconian Chained CPI would force current retirees to lose a whole lot of money that they've earned.  We've released a Chained CPI  calculator, showing exactly how much we'd lose if Washington politicians change the way the cost-of-living adjustment is calculated for Social Security and veterans benefits.  The calculator can be found at www.aarp.org/whatyoulose.

In January AARP held an event at the National Press Club about the Middle Class.  Three top officials including AARP's CEO Barry Rand spoke about the steps we need to take to have a thriving Middle Class.  Today's New York Times says that President Obama's 2013 State of the Union "put the prosperity and promise of the middle class at the heart of his second-term agenda."  The speech, which took place on Mardi Gras, contained some of the same elements of AARP's focus on the Middle Class.

But there's a colossal difference between the AARP event and the President's focus on the Middle Class.  Mr. Rand spoke about the need for a separate conversation on the solvency and adequacy of Social Security. The President, and some members of Congress in both parties, in stark contrast, have telegraphed their willingness to cut Social Security benefits for current and near-retirees.   In the long term, Social Security must be fixed.  The President and some other Washington politicians have proposed breaking it.

If the President, and other Washington politicians put cutting our Social Security benefits in a deficit cutting plan via the Chained CPI, they won't do it in a manner that's obvious.  Instead they'll likely stick to the playbook that has defined their willingness to talk about benefit cuts so far and Americans may one day wake up with an economic hangover worse than any Mardi Gras reveler experienced this morning, forcing many of us from the Middle Class into poverty.

Obama Online

The glossary below helps define innocuous-sounding words and phrases you may hear in speeches and press releases from Washington politicians, White House staff, and pundits, in ongoing deficit talks.  Please sign AARP's petition asking the White House and Congress not to cut our benefits today.

When members of Congress head home from Washington next week, many will meet with AARP volunteers who will be asking them not to cut the benefits we've earned, and to have a separate conversation about Social Security.  Here are some of the words they'll be looking for.

The Glossary of Benefit Cutting Phrases:

Basic benefits:  If any Washington politician mentions "leaving your basic benefits alone" they may simply be telling us that they'll look to cut our benefits via a COLA cut, formula cut, or a cut by doing something like changing the eligibility age.  Politicians say "basic benefits" because they can then spin what they mean by the word "basic."

Example: I won't vote for any package that cuts the basic benefits of older Americans.

Question to ask a Washington politician as a follow-up: Why would you vote for any package that cuts any benefits?

Formula change or Formula adjustment: The "Chained CPI" is a formula used to calculate inflation, and is different than the current formula used to calculate Social Security benefits, the "Chained CPI-W."  Lost?  That's the point.  If a Washington politician speaks about formula changes without telling us how amazing it'll be and why it'll be amazing, they're most likely trying to cut our benefits.

Example: We're just making a slight formula change that some economists say would calculate the rate of inflation better.

Question to ask a Washington politician as a follow-up: Would that formula change result in cutting my already modest Social Security benefits or my cost of living adjustment (COLA), which has only risen twice in four years?

Small technical change or small technical adjustment: A small technical change or adjustment mentioned by a Washington politician is no such thing when it comes to Chained CPI.  Changing the formula used to calculate inflation would result in $112 billion over ten years coming directly from the pockets of retirees.  Also see formula change.

Example: Jay Carney on February 12, 2013 from the White House said "He [The President] has put forward, as a technical change, as part of a big deal - and it's on the table that he put forward to the speaker of the House..."

Question to ask a Washington politician as a follow-up: Would that formula change result in taking $112 billion, or a month's worth of Social Security benefits over a single year as we age?

Tough decisions, Hard choices, or Hard decisions: When the President or others talk about hard choices, they're talking about cutting benefits paired with other items including spending cuts or tax increases.  When Congress makes a "hard decision" they're usually making someone mad.  In the case of the "hard decision" to cut benefits, it's not a hard decision at all.  If Congress has a separate conversation about fixing Social Security, a program separate from the budget, they'll

Example: Jay Carney on February 12, 2013 from the White House said "He [The President] he would consider the hard choice that includes the so-called chained CPI - in fact, he put that on the table in his proposal - but not in a cherry-picked or piecemeal way."

Question to ask a Washington politician as a follow-up: If it's such a hard choice, why not have a separate conversation about making Social Security more adequate and solvent for Americans since by law, it's not part of the deficit?

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