Full House could vote for commission to force cuts in Social Security, Medicare, other critical human needs programs 


January 19, 2024

This week the House Budget Committee advanced legislation to create a fiscal commission – a move that many warn could fast-track  cuts to Social Security and Medicare, as well as a wide swath of non-defense discretionary programs important to the human needs community. 

During a Thursday hearing that lasted almost four hours, it was apparent – time and again – that cuts to Social Security and Medicare are on the table. 

At the hearing’s outset, just as Budget Committee Chairman Jodey Arrington (R-TX) was reading his opening statement, Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works, attempted to deliver half a million signatures from those opposed to the “Fiscal Commission Act of 2023.” 

After chanting “No cuts to Social Security,” Lawson was removed from the committee hearing room and, according to Social Security Works, was arrested. 

After the disruption, Arrington said, “Everything’s on the table – as it should be.” 

Democrats protested that Republican proponents of the fiscal commission were interested in cutting spending but had demonstrated no interest in making Social Security and Medicare solvent by raising revenue. 

“The chairman said that everything is on the table – everything but tax equity,” said Rep. Brian Higgins (D-NY). He added that teachers and firefighters pay 22 percent of their income in federal taxes, but billionaire Jeff Bezos pays less than 1 percent. 

The bill creating the fiscal commission – which would issue a preliminary report by December and a final report by May 2025 – advanced to the full House on a 22-12 vote, with every Republican voting in favor and three Democrats – Reps. Scott Peters (D-CA), Jimmy Panetta (D-CA) and Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) joining them. 

Before the final vote, Democrats offered four amendments – preventing cuts to Social Security in part by raising Social Security taxes on individuals earning more than $400,000; preventing cuts to Medicare; increasing the corporate tax rate while requiring billionaires to pay 25 percent of their income in taxes and repealing some of the Trump tax cuts; and closing the tax gap, which is the difference between taxes owed and taxes paid. 

All four amendments were voted down by Republicans. 

While Democrats on the committee forcefully opposed cuts to Social Security, Republican messaging on the issue was more muddled. Some insisted there are no plans to cut Social Security; others would not offer such a commitment. 

“We say we can’t tackle Social Security. What are the options? Going broke?” said Rep. Ralph Norman (R-SC). 

But Rep. Becca Balint (D-VT) countered that Congress can ensure the solvency of Social Security and Medicare without resorting to a fiscal commission – and without cuts. “We already have the tools that we need,” she said. “We already have the solutions that work. There are some things that should not be on the table.” 

Human needs advocates long have warned that past and future fiscal commissions have served as a gateway to cuts in human needs spending. 

In a letter delivered to Arrington and Ranking Member Brendan Boyle (D-PA) the day of the committee hearing, First Focus Campaign for Children warned of the commission’s potential impact. 

“Unfortunately, the proposed legislation focuses on spending cuts as a solution, fails to center revenue-raising as an important policy option, puts in place a process that undermines Congress’ legislative process and limits public debate and input at a time when we face an investment crisis for too many of our children and their families,” the First Focus letter states. 

In a detailed analysis published last fall, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities laid out why fiscal commissions are not helpful – in this instance, largely because Republicans will not consider revenue enhancements as part of the solution to addressing America’s debt. 

After the markup, Arrington told reporters that Speaker is “100 percent committed to this commission” and wants to attach the proposal to final spending bills. 

The Coalition on Human Needs has encouraged more than 150,000 emails to Congress in opposition to a fiscal commission. 

“Speaker of the House Mike Johnson and Budget Committee Chair Jodey Arrington have made quite clear their desire to enact deep cuts to human needs programs – and to create a fiscal commission that would cut Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, SNAP and more behind closed doors,” CHN told its online supporters this week. “But, at a time of rising poverty, hunger, and housing insecurity, any proposals to address our country’s debt must require the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share in taxes.” 

Fiscal commission
Social Security