DES MOINES, Iowa – As a congressman in the 1990s, Bernie Sanders expressed an openness to making “adjustments" to the tax and benefit structure of Social Security. He also praised an overhaul of the social safety net program signed into law by President Ronald Reagan that reduced benefits and increased taxes on working families.
Sanders' presidential campaign and allies have highlighted similar remarks by Joe Biden to attack the former vice president and make the explosive charge that Biden was an outspoken proponent of slashing the program.
With Iowa's first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses less than a week away, Sanders' remarks from decades ago are surfacing as a counterpunch to the criticism of Biden, as the two top candidates in the Democratic race escalate a feud over the nation's most popular entitlement, an issue that has particular reach among older voters.
Sanders, a democratic socialist, is a favorite of progressives who admire him for his convictions and consistency on issues. But when it comes to Social Security, it appears that wasn't always the case.
In 1994, after Republicans took control of the House for the first time since the Eisenhower era, they brought a renewed focus on fiscal restraint and deficit reduction.
Biden and Sanders both bowed to those pressures in some respect.
Today, Social Security's long-term finances are sagging under the weight of the ballooning number of baby boomers who are collecting benefits. The options available to sustain the program's financing also remain the same: Benefits can be cut, taxes can be raised or a combination of the two can be enacted.
Sanders' allies have specifically highlighted Biden's past use of the term “adjustments" — a word they say was deployed as a euphemism for cuts.
Yet Sanders himself used the word in an election-year opinion article about Social Security that ran in The Burlington Free Press in 1996.
“As our population ages," Sanders wrote, “it is clear that we will have to make incremental adjustments in Social Security taxes and benefits — as Congress has done in the past."
At the time, the primary legislative fixes to Social Security financing had increased taxes and cut benefits. That includes a major 1983 bill signed into law by Reagan that came as the program was on the brink of insolvency. It raised taxes on working families, froze benefit increases for six months and gradually raised the age at which retirees can receive full benefits from 65 to 67.
During a 1999 press conference, Sanders went further, praising the 1983 law as a good example of people coming together to enact a solution without draconian changes.
“We should remember that in 1982, Social Security was within a few months — a few months — of not being able to pay out all benefits owed to Americans," Sanders said at the time. “And then people came together and said of course we want to save Social Security. They worked together, and they did."
Sanders' campaign disputed the idea that his remarks were a sign of approval for reduced Social Security benefits. They say he has a lengthy record of opposing cuts to the program and has instead supported tax increases or spending reductions to other programs, like military aid. They say the quotes, stripped of this broader context, present a deceptive version of Sanders' actual beliefs.
That's the same rebuttal Biden's campaign has invoked in response to attacks by Sanders and his allies.
“We’re not going to play a game of semantics one week before the Iowa caucuses, especially on an issue so important to working families," said Sanders spokesman Mike Casca. “The vice president over and over again worked with Republicans in Washington to try to cut benefits for people relying on Social Security. For decades, Sen. Sanders did the exact opposite."
The comments, however, are another example of something Sanders said in the past that clashes with the present.
Earlier this month Bloomberg News reported that Sanders said during his 1996 campaign that the Social Security system had been “adjusted before, and adjustments will have to be made again." He declined to say at the time what “adjustments" he supported.
Recently, CNN unearthed a video of Sanders voicing his approval for a 1994 crime bill, which critics contend sparked an era of mass incarceration that disproportionately locked up black men.
Sanders has since said that he regrets voting for the “terrible" bill. But at the time, he praised it for striking a balance between making more money available for police and jails while funding crime prevention efforts.
Biden, who has been attacked over his vote for the bill, has also apologized for supporting the measure.
The back-and-forth with Sanders over Social Security highlights Biden's evolution over a long public career, much of which was centered around his tenure as centrist senator and deal maker.
Biden's campaign points to a long list of legislation he supported that increased Social Security benefits. But as an influential legislator who had a hand in passing major bills, he also was willing to enter negotiations with Republicans by considering a reduction in cost-of-living increases.
Often these changes were presented as a way to cut costs that would save the program.
During a 1996 candidate debate, for example, he floated the possibility of reducing cost-of-living increases and raising the retirement age to 68.
As the Democratic Party moved leftward — a development that tracks along ever-widening income and wealth inequality — Biden has moved with it.
“There will be no compromise on Medicare and Social Security, period. That’s a promise,” Biden said Jan. 20 at the Black & Brown Forum in Des Moines.
As Sanders, a Vermont senator, has risen in the polls, he and his allies have sought to turn Biden's past remarks about Social Security against him. They've circulated video footage, news stories and transcripts of his past remarks. In some cases, what appears to be a sweeping statement by Biden lack crucial context.
One of the principal examples is a clip from a 2018 speech in which Biden discussed in favorable terms then-House Speaker Paul Ryan's comments that a rising deficit demanded action on the popular entitlement programs. The video, circulated on Twitter by a top Sanders adviser, omits Biden’s larger criticism over how Ryan handled the 2017 tax cuts and subsequent budget debates.
Other widely distributed videos of Biden as a U.S. senator from Delaware in 1995 and presidential candidate in 2007 show him explaining his support for a more austere federal budget, including putting Social Security and Medicare “on the table.”
“When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security, as well,” Biden said during a 1995 speech on the Senate floor. “I meant Medicare and Medicaid. I meant veterans’ benefits. ... And I not only tried it once, I tried it twice, I tried it a third time and I tried it a fourth time.”
The remarks were delivered in support of a federal balanced budget amendment that ultimately failed to win approval and did not relate directly to legislation that would have cut or frozen Social Security spending — or any other specific program. Yet as Biden himself acknowledged at the time, Social Security would likely have faced cuts if such a measure had been approved.
He has moved far from that position now.
“What I’d do is I make sure that we expand Social Security coverage,” Biden said earlier this month when a voter in Iowa asked him about the program.
Slodysko reported from Washington.
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