All four Democrats – usually loyal defenders of the president – issued statements Wednesday criticizing Obama for his proposal to use a different measure of inflation, known as “chained CPI,” to calculate Social Security benefit increases, which would reduce payments over time compared with current law.
The harshest critique came from U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a leading liberal in the chamber. “The so-called ‘chained CPI’ proposal included in President Obama’s budget is nothing more than a benefit cut disguised behind technical jargon,” he declared.
Whitehouse said he thinks the way Social Security currently calculates inflation already “shortchanges” senior citizens and should be changed to increase benefits – the exact opposite of Obama’s proposal. “I made a promise to the people of Rhode Island that I would always oppose cuts to Social Security, and I’m going to keep that promise,” Whitehouse said.
U.S. Sen. Jack Reed – who is up for re-election next year – called the Obama budget “a mixed bag,” saying: “I remain adamantly opposed to cutting Social Security and using accounting changes to reduce future cost-of-living increases as a means to reduce the deficit.”
Congressman Jim Langevin said Social Security “has kept millions out of poverty without adding to the debt, and I will continue to advocate for alternatives that would put it on sound footing for generations to come.”
Congressman David Cicilline said he was “disappointed” that Obama included the Social Security change in his budget, and suggested the program could be preserved “by reforming our tax code, ending subsidies for Big Oil, and making responsible, targeted spending cuts.”
The reaction may help explain why Republican Congressman Paul Ryan, usually an implacable Obama opponent, instead offered him rare – if limited – praise for the chained CPI proposal. “I think the president should be commended for leaning into an issue that is not popular,” Ryan told National Review.
Not every progressive is as adamantly opposed to chained CPI as Rhode Island’s congressional delegation is.
“There are legitimate reasons not to adopt the chained CPI, and many people who aren’t affluent would indeed be worse off,” Robert Greenstein, president of the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, wrote Tuesday. “At the same time, fears that the chained CPI would impose severe hardship are overblown, especially if policymakers accompany it with a robust package of protections and mitigating measures for those who are very old or have low incomes.”
The four Rhode Island Democrats’ reactions to the Obama budget weren’t entire negative; they praised other proposals, including the president’s call for additional tax increases on upper-income Americans and his proposed new spending on infrastructure projects.
But Reed said Social Security wasn’t the only problem he saw in the budget, arguing that “it falls short on other specific priorities, like LIHEAP” – the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program – “and weatherization.”
• Related: RI Dems back Obama on fiscal cliff deal despite concerns (Jan. 2)
(photo: Stephen Schuler/WPRI)