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NOW Sees Dangerous Deficit-Slashing Season Ahead

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Given the chances that the 12-person "super committee" in Congress might cut into the mainstays of the social safety net, NOW and other advocacy groups are keeping a watchful, worried eye on the next three months.

Subhead: 
Given the chances that the 12-person "super committee" in Congress might cut into the mainstays of the social safety net, NOW and other advocacy groups are keeping a watchful, worried eye on the next three months.



(WOMENSENEWS)--The best outcome for the "super committee" of congressional deficit-slashers could be deadlock, says Terry O'Neill, president of the Washington-based National Organization for Women (NOW), the country's largest women's rights group.

That's because Social Security and Medicare--programs upon which women disproportionately depend--would be exempt from the automatic $1.2 trillion in cuts that will go into effect if the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction cannot agree on a plan or if Congress defeats its recommendations.

And Social Security and Medicare are too important to too many women to be on the table say O'Neill and other women's advocates.

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The automatic cuts would be equally drawn from military and domestic programs, the latter of which O'Neill says should also be high on the watch-out list.

"Women's groups will have to work very hard to ensure that programs such as domestic violence prevention, women's health services, child care and job training are not cut," she said in a phone interview. "The next three months will determine the fate of many programs."

The super committee--equally divided among Democrats and Republicans--is charged with proposing at least $1.5 trillion in federal budget cuts over the next 10 years. A minimum of seven votes are needed to approve recommendations that will be sent to the House and Senate for fast track votes by Dec. 23.

O'Neill points out the poor representation of women on the super committee.

"Although women are 51 percent of the United States population and hold 17 percent of seats in Congress, only one woman--Sen. Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington--was appointed," said O'Neill.

In the past, women's groups were able to defeat proposals to privatize Social Security and transform Medicare into a voucher program by appealing to the 535 members of Congress, she added. "But this time, all it will take is the vote of seven members of this committee to recommend changes in programs such as Social Security, which has been the bedrock of women's financial security for seven decades."

Tax Cut Predictions

Marcia D. Greenberger is co-president of the Washington-based National Women's Law Center, which proposes new laws and litigates cases protecting women. She predicts the committee won't recommend tax increases for the country's wealthiest people, even though President Barack Obama and Democratic leaders in Congress have said that additional revenue must be part of any deficit reduction deal.

"All six Republicans signed the pledge not to raise taxes, which was proposed by Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform," she said in a phone interview. "Lobbyists for powerful interest groups that want to keep tax increases off the table will be targeting the committee."

The Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit organization that tracks campaign spending, reports that the finance, real estate and insurance sectors--all of which oppose tax hikes on the country's highest income earners--have contributed more than $50 million to the campaigns of the dozen super committee members since 1990.

Like O'Neill, Greenberger is worried about the super committee.

"Older women who rely on their Social Security checks to survive during retirement and younger women who would have no health care without Medicaid will be in dire straits if this super committee recommends the proposals floated by the deficit hawks during the recent stalemate in Congress over increasing the national debt limit," she said.

Although Social Security has not contributed one penny to the deficit and has sufficient funds to pay full benefits to every American for the next 25 years, the committee is expected to consider a Republican proposal to change the inflation formula for cost of living adjustments for beneficiaries.

The typical 65-year-old's benefits would drop by $130 a year if this so-called chained formula were adopted. This would take a heavy toll on the 1-in-4 older women who depend on Social Security for 90 percent of their income.

By age 95, the annual benefit would drop by almost $1,400, a 9.2 percent reduction from the current scheduled benefits. Two-thirds of Social Security recipients over age 85 are women.

'Cruel Ponzi Scheme'

Republican co-chair Jeb Hensarling of Texas, who has labeled Social Security a "cruel Ponzi scheme," will need the support of two Democrats on the committee to change the cost of living adjustment formula.

Republican Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan announced Aug. 16 that he would oppose cuts in Social Security to current beneficiaries because "it is hard to tell an 82-year-old that he must go back to work."

However, Upton did not rule out support for a proposal by Obama's deficit reduction commission, headed by Erskine B. Bowles, President Clinton's former chief of staff, and former Republican Sen. Alan K. Simpson, that the age of eligibility for full Social Security benefits be increased to 69.

Although Democratic committee members Senators Murray, Max Baucus of Montana and John Kerry of Massachusetts have voted to preserve Social Security over the years, they have expressed interest in changing Social Security during the recent deficit negotiations because of concern about the impact of longer life spans on Social Security reserves.

Obama singled his readiness to adopt a new cost of living adjustment formula during the debt limit talks with House Speaker John Boehner, Republican of Ohio.

"The recommendation by the Bowles-Simpson commission met strong opposition from Democrats in Congress because many workers in physically demanding jobs cannot work until age 69," said O'Neill of NOW. "Unfortunately, it is going to be far easier to push proposals like this through this time because there will be no amendments to the bills considered by the House and Senate. The vote will be a simple yes or no; so many members of Congress who have strong objections to these changes will end up supporting them."

Members of the Super Committee

Name

Party

State

Position

Senate

Max Baucus

Democrat

Montana

Chair of Finance Committee

John Kerry

Democrat

Mass.

Chair of Foreign Relations Committee

Jon Kyl

Republican

Arizona

Deputy Majority Leader

Patty Murray

Democrat

Wash.

Democratic Conference Secretary and Democratic Co-chair of Super Committee

Rob Portman

Republican

Ohio

Former White House Budget Director under George W. Bush

Pat Toomey

Republican

Penn.

Member of Senate Finance Committee

House

Xavier Becerra

Democrat

Calif.

Vice-chair, Democratic Caucus

Dave Camp

Republican

Mich.

Chair of Ways and Means Committee

James Clyburn

Democrat

Calif.

Assistant Minority Leader

Jeb Hensarling

Republican

Texas

Chair, Republican Conference and Republican Co-chair of Super Committee

Fred Upton

Republican

Mich.

Chair, Energy and Commerce Committee

Chris Van Hollen

Democrat

Md.

Senior Democrat on Budget Committee

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Sharon Johnson is a New York freelance writer.

For more information:

National Women's Law Center:
http://www.nowlc.org

Center for Responsive Politics:
http://www.opensecrets.org

National Organization for Women (NOW):
http://www.now.org