Fact Check: There’s No Comparing Bernie Sanders to Joe Biden on Social Security

Politics Features Bernie Sanders
Fact Check: There’s No Comparing Bernie Sanders to Joe Biden on Social Security

Earlier this week, mere days out from the Iowa caucuses, the Associated Press ran a carelessly reported story on Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Given the publication’s reach and reputation for solid reporting, Paste Politics felt the need to go on record and lay out the facts.

On Tuesday, the AP published an article suggesting that Senator Sanders had been hypocritical in criticizing Joe Biden for supporting cuts to Social Security over a four-decade period, which included one disputed instance in 2018 where the former Vice President had called for “adjustments” to the program. The AP, however, claimed to have found an “opinion article” written by Sanders back in 1996 for the Burlington Free Press in which he’d used the same terminology, conceding that “[a]s our population ages, it is clear that we will have to make incremental adjustments to Social Security taxes and benefits — as Congress has done in the past.”

The AP pointed out that 1996 was an election year and that past congressional actions to save Social Security’s trust fund had involved benefit cuts and tax increases. It pointed out that Sanders had ‘praised’ a 1983 bill that increased taxes, froze benefits, and raised the age of eligibility an example of Congress coming together at a 1999 press conference. The AP was quick to couch these finds in the context of a similar story by Bloomberg published the previous week about the Senator using the term “adjustments” vaguely—also in 1996. To really paint its picture, the AP also made reference to a video uncovered by CNN’s KFILE earlier in the week of Sanders praising the allocation of funds for crime prevention in Biden’s 1994 crime bill, which he’d notably criticized. Though the AP did give the Senator’s campaign column space for its allegation that the outlet was taking quotes out of context, it immediately dismissed the suggestion as “the same rebuttal Biden’s campaign has invoked in response to attacks by Sanders and his allies.” The piece concluded with a discussion of Biden’s “evolution” on the issue “over a long public career, much of which was centered around his tenure as centrist senator and deal maker.”

Paste Politics agrees with the Sanders campaign. We found the Burlington Free Press clipping the AP based its story on. Published in October 1996, it is not an “opinion article” at all, as the AP asserted. Rather, it was a submitted answer to a reader question for an election-year Q&A column the paper was running called, “You Ask the Candidates.”

The reader’s question was: “When the Bipartisan Commission on Entitlement and Tax Reform issued its report to the president in 1994, the group stated, ‘Unless changes are made, projected outlays for entitlements and interest on the national debt will consume all tax revenues collected by the federal government by 2012.’ Since we have no control over the interest, how would you propose to reduce the cost of entitlements?”

Although the AP did not outright misquote Sanders, it changed the tenor of his statement. Immediately preceding his discussion of Social Security, Sanders wrote, “It is absurd for anyone to be talking about slashing important entitlement programs for the elderly and the sick while leaving alone an unfair tax system which enables millionaires to become richer at the expense of almost everyone else.”

“In terms of Social Security, our largest entitlement program,” Sanders continued, “we should be aware that the Social Security Trust Fund is projected to be solvent for the next 34 years, until 2030.”

The AP’s presentation is baffling. Beyond changing the nature of what Sanders said, it left out any discussion of the Vermont Senator’s record on the issue—something CNN did not do in the cited crime bill article.

A fuller examination of Sanders’ roughly 30-year record shows that he has consistently sought to protect funding for Social Security and other social programs over the years. What follows are selected clippings from that record:

In 1990, even before he was a congressman, Sanders called out congressional leaders for pushing a government spending freeze that would have affected Social Security benefits. A Burlington Free Press article from August 1990 quoted him:

“It’s unfair and unreasonable to use the Social Security program to solve problems that were created elsewhere,” Sanders said.

At the time, Democratic chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee Dan Rostenkowski was pushing for a deficit reduction plan that included a one-year freeze on Social Security benefit increases.

Five years later, in January 1995, Sanders spoke out against the proposed Balanced Budget Amendment—the centerpiece of the Republican House Majority’s “Contract With America.” Sanders, who went on to vote against the amendment, addressed the House and warned of the dangers the proposal posed to programs like Social Security.

“The Balanced Budget Amendment approach being brought forth by the Republican majority—within the context of asking, as I understand it, for a $60 billion increase in military spending and major tax breaks for the wealthiest people in this country—leads all serious economists to the conclusion that Balanced Budget Amendment will be a disaster for working people, for elderly people, for low-income people,” Sanders warned. “It will mean, in my view, the destruction of the Social Security system as we know it; it will mean savage cuts in Medicare, in Medicaid, in the opportunity of young people to get grants and loans to go to college; it will mean major cutbacks in nutrition programs for hungry children; it will tamper with the unemployment compensation program, as we heard earlier; it will be a disaster for the vast majority of the people in this country.”

Just a few short months later in May, Sanders, seemingly cognizant of the fact that the revenue loss would provide a convenient excuse to go after social programs, made similar arguments in response to the Seven-Year Balanced Budget Reconciliation Act of 1995. With the two minutes he was allocated to speak, Sanders excoriated Republicans for pushing tax breaks for the wealthiest Americans while there was concern over the deficit.

“Mr. Chairman, I rise in very strong opposition to the proposal presented by the Republican leadership,” Sanders declared. “At a time when this country has a very large deficit, a $4.7 trillion national debt, it is vulgar, it is crass to be giving huge tax breaks to the wealthiest in this country and to the largest corporations.”

In March 1997, Sanders’ team sent out a press release titled “Sanders Will Oppose Social Security Cuts,” which led off by announcing “Representative Bernie Sanders (I-VT) announced today that he will oppose efforts to cut Social Security benefits, including proposals to lower the Consumer Price Index (CPI).”

The release quoted Sanders as having said, “Some politicians are trying to cut the CPI, which determines Social Security Cost of Living Adjustments. At a time when many of our elderly citizens are trying to survive on $7,000 or $8,000 a year, cutting the C.P.I. would cause a lot of pain for people who are already struggling.”

The next month, Sanders wrote an op-ed in the Burlington Free Press titled, “Social Security Program Not In Jeopardy,” in which he argued that while the program would remain solvent for decades, the solution to ensure continued solvency was raising the program’s tax cap rather than cutting benefits.

“I regard it as vulgar that any member of Congress would want to balance the budget on the backs of some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in America,” Sanders wrote.

In May, Sanders published a press release titled, “Cries of Crisis Threaten a Healthy Social Security,” sharply criticizing proposed spending cuts that would affect the program. Notably, the release made mention of how he would “adjust” Social Security by making the rich pay more into it.

“While there is no crisis in Social Security today, we should begin working to make certain we avoid a problem 30 or 40 years from now,” Sanders wrote, explaining that “[e]veryone, whether the richest person in America or a $20,000-a-year worker, pays the Social Security tax at exactly the same rate” and that “while most Americans must contribute to Social Security based on their entire income, the wealthy pay Social Security taxes on only a fraction of what they earn because any salary above $65,400 a year is exempt from Social Security taxes.”

“If we are serious about saving Social Security, not raising taxes on the middle class, and not cutting back on benefits desperately needed by many senior citizens, we must adjust this artificial ceiling on Social Security taxes and make the Social Security tax more progressive,” he continued.

Three months later, in July, Sanders again spoke out against the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 when it came up for debate, citing cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and veterans’ programs.

“We do know that in a time when millions of elderly people are unable to pay for their prescription drugs; when they are paying more and more for private insurance to cover what Medicare does not cover; we do know that we are going to be asked to cut Medicare by $115 billion,” Sanders said. “That is wrong. We also know there are significant cuts in the Social Security Administration and in veterans programs. That is wrong.”

Sanders added that “in order to pay for the cuts in Medicare, in the Social Security Administration, and in veterans programs, what the Congress is proposing is to provide huge tax breaks for the wealthiest people in this country, unfortunately: precisely the people who do not need it.”

“[W]hat is going to happen is, 10 years from now, when we have, all of these loopholes for the wealthy and for large corporations, we are going to be back here again with another huge deficit and we are going to have Members here saying, we have got to cut more into Medicare; more into Social Security; more into veterans programs; more into housing,” he continued. “So my friends, before we pass a budget like this, first of all, have the courage to look at it and, second of all, let us not balance the budget on the backs of the weak and the vulnerable in order to give huge tax breaks to the wealthy.”

In February the following year, during his appearance at the United Auto Workers Community Action Conference, Sanders reiterated his commitment to the program.

“Let me briefly tell you about the ‘crisis’ in Social Security,” he said. “It’s a short speech. There is no crisis.”

Sanders went on to explain that the trust fund had a $73 billion surplus and could pay out full benefits for the next 30 years, exclaiming, “Now that’s a hell of a crisis.”

“Do we need to make changes so that Social Security goes on in perpetuity? Yeah, we do,” Sanders said. “One of the things we may want to do—and this is a very radical idea, but let me just mention this one fact here: Right now if you have some guy that making a million dollars, some person who’s making $65,000 a year, they both make the same contribution into the Social Security trust fund. Might be a radical idea to say ‘let’s lift that ceiling; let’s ask the millionaire and the billionaire to contribute more then the system will go on even decades after that.”

In September 1998, Sanders sent out a press release boasting about how he’d opposed cuts to Social Security:

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Rep. Bernie Sanders took to the floor of the House today to blast a Republican proposal to raid the Social Security trust fund in order to provide tax cuts six weeks before an election. Sanders said he would support a Presidential veto of that legislation, which passed by a 229-195, largely partisan vote. Sanders said he supported targeted tax cuts for the middle class – if they were paid for by eliminating tax-loopholes that exist for billionaires and cuts in corporate welfare.

Three months later, in December, another press release to the White House was sent out. Sanders outlined his principles for approaching Social Security in the future, including 1) recognizing that the program was not in financial crisis, 2) opposing lowering benefits and raising the retirement age, 3) raising the tax cap, and 4) not privatizing it.

“[I]n this, the wealthiest nation on earth, we should not be doing what many members of Congress are already advocating – lowering benefits and raising the retirement age,” it read. “Cuts in Social Security, combined with cuts in Medicare, veterans’ programs and other senior needs, will only increase the already obscene gap between the rich and the poor, and make life harder for future retirees.”

Sanders spent the next two months opposing Social Security privatization, sending out a pair of press releases—one in January 1999 and the other in February. The latter focused on how women would be disproportionately affected by a privatization scheme.

“Social Security is a vital program for millions of Americans, and it is especially important for women who rely on retirement and survivor’s benefits,” Sanders was quoted as saying. “Its progressive structure helps women make up a small portion of the ground they lost during their working years, when they were paid less than men, and it protects women who choose not to work outside their homes and who must rely on their spouses” Social Security benefits to help them with retirement. Privatization takes that away and, with it, Social Security’s basic promise to women – security.”

Further review of Sanders’ archived house.gov website from a January 10, 2001 screenshot, shows that, sure enough, his plan to keep Social Security solvent at the time revolved around raising the tax cap.

“Social Security has served as a safety net, providing nearly 60 percent of retirees with at least half of their income, and providing the only disability protection for 75 percent of all workers. However, a market-driven system would abandon the fundamental protections in the current system,” it read. “One possible solution to this would be to lift the cap on earnings. Currently, only the first $72,600 of earnings is taxed. This means that the CEO of a major corporation contributes on the first $72,600 he or she earns. The remaining millions are completely tax free as far as Social Security is concerned.”

This language remained on the website through December 2006. Sanders assumed office as a Senator on January 3, 2007.

Five years into his first Senate term, Sanders led the charge against the Obama administration’s proposed Social Security cuts in the form of the “chained CPI.” In a December 12, 2012 statement, Sanders condemned the plan.

“Do not balance the budget on the backs of the men and women who have already sacrificed for us in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Sanders said. “Do not balance the budget on the backs of the wives, husbands, and children of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice. And, do not balance the budget on the backs of the men and women who served our country in World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War, and other conflicts by cutting Social Security benefits.”

Four months later, on April 16, 2013, Sanders grilled Treasury Secretary Jack Lew over the proposal.

“In your compromise efforts, what have you gotten from our Republican friends?” Sanders asked. “Will any of them stand here and tell me that they’re prepared to support more revenue now?”

During his 2016 presidential bid, Bernie Sanders ran on expanding Social Security.

Today, he is still running on expanding Social Security.

Given the stunning consistency his record demonstrates, we feel confident that Sanders was not endorsing the idea of Social Security cuts in 1996 when he mentioned that the program might eventually need tax and benefit “adjustments.” We also reject the false equivalence the AP story creates.

When the former VP called for “adjustments,” it immediately followed a pitch for means-testing benefits.

“Now, I don’t know a whole lot of people in the top one-tenth of one percent, or the top one percent, who are relying on Social Security when they retire,” Biden said. “I don’t know a lot of them. Maybe you guys do. So we need a pro-growth progressive tax code that…raises enough revenue to make sure that the Social Security and Medicare can stay—still needs adjustments, but can stay.”

The statement did not occur in a vacuum. Biden’s record of supporting Social Security cuts goes back longer than Sanders’ congressional record opposing such measures. Beginning in the early ‘80s, Biden pushed total government spending freezes on—by his own admission—four separate occasions. In 1995, he spoke forcefully forcefully in favor of and voted for the GOP’s Balanced Budget Amendment, telling his colleagues that without such an amendment “all of the things I care about will be gone.” This past December, Biden told CNBC reporter John Harwood, that while he no longer favored such a measure, he did not regret his vote.

“[W]e’re in a different place now,” he explained. “I hope it’s not true, but we’re likely to inherit a recession, at least a significant economic slowdown. That [amendment] doesn’t make sense.”

In 1996, Biden voted for the Balanced Budget Act, which steeply cut Medicare. During his 2007-2008 presidential bid, he was talking about putting cost-of-living adjustments and raising the retirement age “on the table,” at one point even telling a room full of Iowa donors a room full of Iowa donors that when it came to Social Security, “we can’t grow our way to a solution.” According to Biden, Americans were ready to make “tough decisions.” Years later, as VP, he led the Obama administration’s negotiations to cut the program as part of a so-called “grand bargain” with congressional Republicans.

Even though Biden’s campaign platform calls for expanding Social Security today, there is no comparison between his record on the issue and Sanders’.

This reporting for this article was done by Walker Bragman. It has been substantially updated from its previous version to reflect the fact that Paste uncovered the 1996 Burlington Free Press clip the AP relied on for its story.

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