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With election looming, Pa. Democrats raise alarms on Social Security, Medicare

Democrat Summer Lee (left) is facing Republican Mike Doyle in the campaign for the 12th Congressional District.
Rebecca Droke/AP
Doyle campaign
Democrats like Congressional candidate Summer Lee (left) are using Social Security and Medicare as a line of attack on Republicans like Mike Doyle (right) in the final weeks of the 2022 campaign.

After months in which concerns about abortion have dominated Democrats’ election rhetoric, the party is taking up a new issue in the final weeks before the general election: the fate of Social Security and Medicare. And in an election notable for its political polarization, the issue has local Republican candidates stressing the virtues of bipartisanship.

Democrat Summer Lee, who is running to replace U.S. Rep Mike Doyle in the 12th Congressional District, name-checks the issue in a new ad Wednesday that seeks to define her opponent — a Plum Borough Republican whose name is also Mike Doyle but is no relation to the incumbent.

Summer Lee campaign
A Lee ad attacking Doyle.

"Republican Mike Doyle supports ... a total ban on abortion, has an 'A' rating from the NRA, and would cut Medicare and Social Security," the ad warns.
“Social Security and Medicare is greatly underfunded in our country, but it is the promise we have made to millions of seniors,” Lee told WESA. “It’s long past time that corporations and the wealthiest few pay their fair share of taxes like working families have their entire life.”

“The Democratic solution to everything is tax the rich more,” countered Republican Doyle.

“I will support nothing that will harm our seniors,” he said — but with both programs facing funding shortfalls, “I think everything should be looked at. And I would hope those discussions would be bipartisan.”

That's unlikely to happen in the next few weeks: The issue also erupted during a Tuesday night U.S. Senate debate between Republican Mehmet Oz and Democrat John Fetterman, in which Fetterman accused Oz of trying to undermine the programs while Oz offered vague assurances he would try to shore them up.

There is at least bipartisan consensus that both Social Security and Medicare, which provide seniors with income and health coverage, face serious financial problems as retiring Baby Boomers stress the programs' trust funds. Estimates about the programs’ health are subject to change, but current projections suggest that by the mid-2030s, Social Security will be unable to pay all the benefits it currently provides. The same would happen to Medicare, which covers health costs for seniors, in the late 2020s.

But the debate about addressing those shortfalls is almost as old as the programs themselves. So Democratic warnings about Republican efforts to overhaul the program — which have been amplified by President Joe Biden and others in recent weeks — may not be surprising. And arguably neither are Republican attempts to hedge on what remedies they prescribe.

'The longer you wait, the harder it's going to be'

A “Commitment to America” drafted by House Republicans and unveiled last month just outside Monongahela, includes a pledge to “save and strengthen Social Security and Medicare” if the GOP members take the House. But as with much of the document’s election-season messaging, it provides almost no details about what that means.

Still, proposals that would likely be up for discussion include a delay in the retirement age at which one qualifies for benefits — that age is currently 67 — and some form of “means testing” in which wealthier retirees would receive fewer benefits.

Those ideas have been embraced by the conservative Republican Study Committee and other groups. And Pennsylvania Republican Lloyd Smucker, who could chair the House Budget Committee if the GOP wins control of the chamber next month, told WESA at the Commitment unveiling event, “I think we should look at” those changes as potential solutions.

“The longer you wait to make changes, the harder it’s going to be,” he said then.

But while the Republican Mike Doyle said of the Commitment to America, “I would support it 100 percent,” he said he wasn’t ready to commit to a solution just yet. Jeremy Shaffer, the Republican seeking to replace Conor Lamb in the 17th Congressional District next door, also said more time was needed.

Like most other Republicans, Shaffer said he opposed changing benefits “for current retirees or those who are close to [retirement].” A statement from his campaign took no position for or against such proposals as raising the retirement age or means-testing benefits.

Instead, it urged that “Congress should roll up its sleeves and work in a bipartisan fashion to strengthen those programs.” Shaffer recommended the creation of a task force composed of business and labor leaders along with officials in both parties. And he said he would back means testing only “if it has strong bipartisan support” and would “prioritiz[e] the middle class and working poor.”

In the meantime, he accused Democrats of fiscal policies that worsened inflation, which his statement called “one of the main enemies for those in retirement and our economy in general.” And he accused his Democratic rival, Chris Deluizo, of “demagog[ing] the issue and hop[ing] the programs don’t run out of funds.”

Republicans have blamed federal spending for inflation — which exacerbates funding shortfalls each time Social Security payments get a cost-of-living adjustment. Deluzio called it “disgusting that Republicans are using inflation as an excuse” to cut Social Security and Medicare even as “they look to cut taxes for the wealthy and big corporations. I will always defend Social Security and Medicare from attacks.”

Deluzio’s proposed solution is popular among Democrats: Remove a “cap” on the amount of income that is taxable to pay for Social Security benefits. (Currently, income above $165,000 is not taxed for Social Security purposes.) That, his campaign has said, will ensure “the rich can no longer shirk paying their fair share” while helping to “keep Social Security on a steady footing.”

Fellow Democrat Lee similarly favors hikes in the corporate tax rate, and for wealthy taxpayers to plug any shortfalls.

“There is no reason why we cannot continue funding a program we have funded for 87 years,” she said in a written response to WESA.

Holding the country hostage?

Even if the Republican agenda was clear, advancing it would be hard even with control of both chambers of Congress. President Biden would likely veto any dramatic change. But there have been reports that Republicans may tie the issue to a vote on raising the nation’sdebt ceiling in a bit to force Democrats to negotiate — or risk a potentially disastrous default on the national debt.

Lee said such a thing would amount to “holding our country hostage, forcing us to make a false choice between economic collapse and kicking millions of seniors off Social Security and Medicare.”

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Neither of the Pittsburgh-area candidates running for Congress endorsed using a debt-ceiling hike for leverage.

“Obviously we can’t default on that,” said Doyle, the Republican running in District 12.

In a statement, Shaffer didn’t specifically reject the tactic — but did say a default “could be catastrophic for our economy. … I will work with pragmatic Republicans and Democrats to cure Washington’s spending addiction.” 

But pragmatism has not always carried the day. Republicans held up a debt ceiling vote to push for cuts in other spending but risked a global financial meltdown in the process.

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.