As early as 1984 and as recently as 2018, former Vice President Joe Biden called for cuts to Social Security in the name of saving the program and balancing the federal budget. Last week, Sen. Bernie Sanders highlighted Biden’s record on Social Security in prosecuting the case that Biden isn’t the most electable candidate. The issue could be raised again in Tuesday night’s debate.
After a Sanders campaign newsletter continued the attack on Biden’s Social Security record, the Biden campaign complained to fact-checkers at Politifact that his comments were being taken out of context. Placed in context, however, Biden’s record on Social Security is far worse than one offhand remark. Indeed, Biden has been advocating for cuts to Social Security for roughly 40 years.
And after a Republican wave swept Congress in 1994, Biden’s support for cutting Social Security, and his general advocacy for budget austerity, made him a leading combatant in the centrist-wing battle against the party’s retreating liberals in the 1980s and ’90s.
“When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well,” he told the Senate in 1995. “I meant Medicare and Medicaid. I meant veterans’ benefits. I meant every single solitary thing in the government. And I not only tried it once, I tried it twice, I tried it a third time, and I tried it a fourth time.” (A freeze would have reduced the amount that would be paid out, cutting the program’s benefit.)
“The truth is the last election did one thing,” Biden continued. “I do not know whether it really made you guys a majority party for long. I do not know. We will find out. I know one thing it did. What it did was it made sure that there was nobody left on the left in my party who, in fact, said we do not care about moving the budget toward balance.”
"When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well; I meant Medicare and Medicaid; I meant veterans' benefits; I meant every single, solitary thing in the government." — Joe Biden defending the proposed balanced budget amendment, January 1995 pic.twitter.com/5WQ1imljgg
— Walker Bragman (@WalkerBragman) May 3, 2019
What Biden was expressing was a common sentiment among the centrist faction of the party in the 1980s and ’90s — the belief that old tax-and-spend liberals were out, and that a type of “New Democrat” was needed, one who understood the necessity of fiscal restraint. Cutting spending was the only way, he argued, to salvage what was left of the Great Society and New Deal. The mentality of Biden-style Democrats — that the best the party could do was play defense — was dominant for a generation; it’s now being fundamentally challenged not just in the presidential campaign but in congressional primaries across the country.
The mentality of Biden-style Democrats — that the best the party could do was play defense — was dominant for a generation, but is now being fundamentally challenged.
Biden himself, at least on his campaign website, now supports making Social Security more generous, not less. But that’s at odds with decades of his own advocacy, a record that could become a major political liability among voters concerned Biden will finally get his wish to trim back Social Security checks. Because about half of black seniors on Social Security rely on it as their primary means of support, any trimming of the program hits those beneficiaries particularly hard.
Over the years, Biden, in speeches and interviews, has often taken pains to let listeners know that he’s taking an unpopular stance, being explicit about the risk he knows he’s taking.
“One of the things my political advisers say to me, is, whoa, don’t touch that third rail,” Biden told Tim Russert on “Meet the Press,” while running for president in 2007.
With this year’s presidential contest being fought over the terrain of electability, Biden’s 35-plus-year effort to cut Social Security, arguably the most popular government program in existence, is potentially a major liability among older voters — and hypocrisy has never held Trump back from making an effective political attack. Biden’s historical position also stands in stark contrast to Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of whom support increasing benefits and have offered ways to make the program solvent indefinitely.
“As Bernie Sanders himself said in 2015 — after all of these quotes — ‘Joe Biden is a man who has devoted his entire life to public service and to the wellbeing of working families and the middle class,’” said Andrew Bates, a spokesperson for Biden.
In the midst of that debate, Biden teamed up with Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley to call for a freeze on federal spending, and insisted on including Social Security in that freeze, even as the Reagan administration fought to protect the program from cuts. It was part of the Democratic approach at the time not just to match Republicans, but to get to their right at times as well, as Biden also did on criminal justice policy.
Biden teamed up with Iowa Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley to call for a freeze on federal spending, and insisted on including Social Security in that freeze.
“So, when those of my friends in the Democratic and Republican Party say to me, ‘How do you expect me to vote for your proposal? Does it not freeze Social Security COLAs for one year? Are we not saying there will be no cost-of-living increases for one year?’ The answer to that is ‘Yes, that is what I am saying,’” Biden said in a Senate floor speech in April 1984, referring to the adjustment that millions of seniors look for every year.
Biden was facing reelection to the Senate in 1984, which was shaping up to be a heavily Republican cycle, and continued returning to the issue of Social Security.
His plan with Grassley was backed, the New York Times reported in May 1984, by a bevy of business trade groups, “including the Chamber of Commerce of the United States, the National Federation of Independent Businesses, Business Executives for National Security and the National Association of Manufacturers.”
The Biden-Grassley plan was ultimately rejected, but Biden never wavered on it, arguing in 1988 that had he been able to cut Social Security, he’d have been able to save other social programs and force Republicans to cut defense spending.
“I introduced an amendment, notwithstanding my quote liberal credentials, of freezing the federal budget, absolute freeze,” Biden boasted. “I did it for a simple reason: I sat on the Budget Committee for 11 years. And I’d find the same thing occur every time. We’d start off with grandiose ideas of how we’re going to cut the budget. We would never touch entitlements, we would never touch the defense budget, and we couldn’t touch the interest on the debt. Which meant that out of a trillion-dollar budget, that left us only $156 billion And what we would do each year is we would go out and cut out education, food stamps, Head Start, [welfare] payments, on down the line, everything that I cared about got cut, because at the very end, we’d say, ‘Well, we’ve gotta make some cuts.’ And that would be the path of least resistance.”
That political approach — that by ceding to Republicans, they will respond by compromising in return — has been thoroughly discredited by the last 40 years of events, though it remains the animating argument of Biden’s campaign.
In November 1995, he again reminded the public of his deficit hawkery. “I am a Democrat that voted for the constitutional amendment to balance the budget. I have introduced on four occasions — four occasions — entire plans to balance a budget,” he said on the Senate floor. “I tried with Senator Grassley back in the 1980s to freeze all government spending, including Social Security, including everything.”
“When I introduced my budget freeze proposal years ago, the liberals of my party said, ‘It’s an awful thing you are doing, Joe. All the programs we care about, you are freezing them — money for the blind, the disabled, education and so on,’” Biden continued. “My argument then is one I make now, which is the strongest, most compelling reason to be for this amendment — or an amendment — that if we do not do that, all the things I care most about are going to be gone — gone.”
The first few months of 1995 were taken up with debate over another GOP-led balanced budget amendment, with Biden arguing forcefully to exclude Social Security from it.
“After the year 2014, we will be in deficit in the Social Security system,” he warned. “It seems pretty clear to me this is about two things: One, they need the Social Security dollars to make the deficit look like it is less than it is, and then the next step is they are going to need to try to deal with changing it to increase the amount of money they get in the trust funds to make the deficit look even less, which means that Social Security is going to get hit.”
Biden pushed for an amendment to carve Social Security out of the balanced budget amendment. Clear as it may have been, the amendment to protect Social Security failed. Biden voted for the balanced budget amendment anyway, even after his multiple warnings that it would undercut Social Security.
It was, in fact, the argument over Social Security that torpedoed the balanced budget amendment by a single vote on the Senate floor, after it had already passed the House. “After days of persuasion, the Republicans supporting the amendment were unable to attract the one last vote they needed for a two-thirds majority, resulting in a victory for Democrats, who raised doubts in the final hours about whether the Social Security trust fund would be safe if the measure became law,” the New York Times reported in March 1995. Biden’s inability to bring along one additional Democratic colleague had saved the program, and saved the Constitution from being amended with a draconian fiscal constraint mechanism.
Ironically, the budget would reach balance anyway by the end of the decade, as federal revenue climbed — the result of an economy in hyperdrive thanks to a tech bubble. President George W. Bush turned that surplus into a mammoth tax cut for the wealthy, and within just a few years, Biden was again calling for cuts to Social Security to deal with the deficit.
“The American people know we have to fix Social Security,” Biden said in 2007. “They know we’re going to have to make some tough decisions.”
In his 2007 interview with Russert as a presidential candidate, the “Meet the Press” host asked, “Senator, we have a deficit. We have Social Security and Medicare looming. The number of people on Social Security and Medicare is now 40 million people. It’s going to be 80 million in 15 years. Would you consider looking at those programs, age of eligibility…”
“Absolutely,” Biden said.
“ … cost of living, put it all on the table.”
“The answer is absolutely,” Biden said, reminding Russert that earlier in his career, he had been part of the small number of senators who had come up with the deal that raised the retirement age, and promised to protect each other from voters outraged at the cuts:
I was one of five people — I was the junior guy in the meeting with Bob Dole and George Mitchell when we put Social Security on the right path for 60 years. I’ll never forget what Bob Dole said. After we reached an agreement about gradually raising the retirement age, etc., he said, ‘Look, here’s the deal, we all put our foot in the boat one at a time.’ And he kicked — he stepped like he was stepping into a boat. ‘And we all make the following deal. If any one of the challengers running against the incumbent Democrat or Republicans attack us on this point, we’ll all stay together.’ That’s the kind of leadership that is needed. Social Security’s not the hard one to solve. Medicare, that is the gorilla in the room, and you’ve got to put all of it on the table.
At Iowa’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner in November 2007, weeks from the Iowa caucus, Biden again returned to Social Security. “The American people know we have to fix Social Security,” he said. “They know we can’t grow our way to a solution. They know we’re going to have to make some tough decisions. They’re ready to make those decisions. They’re ready to step up. We have to be ready to straightforwardly tell them what we’re about to do.”
As vice president, Biden was involved in multiple administration attempts to cut Social Security as part of a “grand bargain” with Republicans, all of them blocked by tea party Republicans, who couldn’t agree to any tax increases. In 2014, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., said at a conservative event that Biden had privately told him he was supporting of raising the retirement age and means-testing Social Security benefits. “I asked the vice president, don’t we have to raise the age? Wouldn’t means-testing and raising the age solve the problem?” Paul recounted, with Sens. Ted Cruz and Mike Lee on stage, adding that Biden said, “Yes in private, but will not say it in public.” Paul hadn’t been paying close enough attention.
A few years later, at a Brookings Institution event in April 2018, Biden addressed Social Security again. “Paul Ryan was correct when he did the tax code. What’s the first thing he decided we had to go after? Social Security and Medicare. Now, we need to do something about Social Security and Medicare,” Biden said, then added in a whisper: “That’s the only way you can find room to pay for it.”
Last week, the Biden campaign told Politifact that Biden was mocking Ryan and being sarcastic. Immediately after his whisper, he went into the kinds of adjustments to Social Security he thought should be made, the same type that Paul said he told him supported privately.
“Now, I don’t know a whole lot of people in the top one-tenth of 1 percent or the top 1 percent who are relying on Social Security when they retire. I don’t know a lot of them,” Biden said, alluding to the need to means-test Social Security. “So we need a pro-growth, progressive tax code that treats workers as job creators, as well, not just investors; that gets rid of unproductive loopholes like stepped-up basis; and it raises enough revenue to make sure that the Social Security and Medicare can stay, it still needs adjustments, but can stay; and pay for the things we all acknowledge will grow the country.”
When the program is popular, “adjustment” is a Washington euphemism for cuts. But you can count on Trump to use the more common term.
Ryan Grim is the author of the book We’ve Got People: From Jesse Jackson to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the End of Big Money and the Rise of a Movement.
Update: January 13, 2020, 10:30 a.m.
The story has been updated with a statement from the Biden campaign sent after publication.