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Social security is vital to many senior citizens, and is a point of contention in the Democratic primary. (AP) Social security is vital to many senior citizens, and is a point of contention in the Democratic primary. (AP)

Social security is vital to many senior citizens, and is a point of contention in the Democratic primary. (AP)

Jon Greenberg
By Jon Greenberg March 12, 2020

Sanders’ misleading Social Security attack on Biden

If Your Time is short

  • In the 1970s, Biden supported increases in Social Security benefits.

  • In the 1980s and 1990s, he supported a one-year freeze in benefits.

  • In the 2000s, he opposed benefit cuts, protected Social Security from automatic budget cuts, and supported a change that would reduce benefits by about 4.5% over 40 years.

  • Today, Biden supports higher benefits.

Leading up to the primary in Florida, with its many retirees, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., is pressing Joe Biden hard on his past stands on Social Security. 

Sanders’ current ad in heavy rotation in Florida has a picture of Biden under the words "Biden has advocated cutting Social Security for 40 years."

The ad plays audio of Biden from 1995 saying, "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. And I not only tried it once, I tried it twice, I tried it a third time, and I tried it a fourth time."

We’ve reviewed Biden’s past statements on Social Security before. Our focus here is on the specific claim that he has pushed for cuts for 40 years.

A plain reading of that would be that Biden consistently sought to reduce benefit payments for most of his career. The reality is that Biden’s position has changed over time. 

In roughly 10-year hops, starting in the 1970s, he went from calling for a 7% increase, then for a one-year freeze, then floated raising the retirement age, then backed a change in how benefits would increase, and has ended up today calling for higher benefits. 

1970 to 2000

In 1973, as a first-term senator, Biden co-sponsored a bill to increase monthly benefits by 7%.

During the 1980s and 1990s, Biden spoke in favor of freezes to Social Security as part of an effort to rein in all spending to reduce the deficit.

"The only way that Congress will ever be able to come to grips with deficits is by dealing with all federal programs as a package," Biden said in 1984.

In 1984, Biden co-sponsored a proposal with two GOP senators to broadly freeze federal spending. The proposal would have meant no Social Security cost-of-living adjustments for one year, but it was defeated.

In 1995, Biden voted in favor of an amendment to exclude reducing Social Security benefits in any legislation to implement a balanced-budget amendment. But Biden ultimately supported the balanced-budget amendment when its final form didn’t include the exemption.

In 1996, Biden suggested cutting the cost-of-living adjustment by one percentage point.

He also supported a balanced-budget amendment that many saw as a backdoor to cuts in Social Security.

A shift in the 2000s

In 2003, Biden sponsored a Senate resolution opposing cuts in the cost-of-living increases for Social Security benefits.

When he ran for president in 2007, in an interview with NBC, Biden said the retirement age and cost-of-living adjustments had to "be on the table" in negotiations on stabilizing Social Security. 

But a few months later during a Democratic presidential debate, Biden backed away from changing the retirement age. He said he would support raising the income cap for the Social Security tax, which was then $97,500; that would be enough to avert other changes, he argued.

"The truth is, you’re either going to cut benefits or you’re going to go ahead and raise taxes above the first $97,000," Biden said Sept. 26, 2007.

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2008-2016: The Obama years

As vice president, Biden was drawn back into fights over the future of Social Security amid efforts to reduce federal deficits. A 2010 presidential commission on the deficit had proposed Social Security cuts that President Barack Obama rejected.

The 2011 Budget Control Act set deficit reduction targets. If they were not met, automatic cuts, called sequestration, kicked in.

In hammering out that bill, the Obama White House and Democrats ensured that sequestration would not touch Social Security. 

In 2012, Biden promised voters in Virginia: "I guarantee you, flat guarantee you: There will be no changes in Social Security. I flat guarantee you." 

But during the Obama years, Biden did have a hand in a proposal that would have reduced Social Security benefits over time. It involved a different way of calculating inflation, using something called chained CPI. According to a recent report from the Urban Institute, a Washington think tank, such a change today would reduce the mean Social Security benefit by about 4.5% over a span of 45 years.

In deficit reduction negotiations with a Republican-controlled Congress, the Obama White House said it was ready to accept a shift to the chained CPI as part of a larger budget deal.

Opposition from Democratic lawmakers killed the proposal in 2011 and 2014, and it never went forward. 

2020

In this election, Biden has called for "urgently needed action to make the program solvent and prevent cuts to American retirees."

Biden would increase the minimum benefit for lifelong workers and make payments for the oldest people more generous. To shore up Social Security’s finances, he would raise taxes on upper-income households, although his plan doesn’t say by how much.

"We should be increasing, not decreasing, Social Security," Biden said at an AARP Iowa forum in July

The meaning of "adjustments"

Recently, the Sanders campaign argued that in 2018, Biden had endorsed proposals by former Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan to cut Social Security benefits. We rated that False, but in his complete remarks at the time, Biden did say Social Security "still needs adjustments."

The Sanders ad drew on an article that said the word "adjustments" is "a Washington euphemism for cuts."

If that’s the case, the same could be said of Sanders. The Associated Press found that in 1996, Sanders said the aging of America’s population would require changes in Social Security.

"It is clear that we will have to make incremental adjustments in Social Security taxes and benefits — as Congress has done in the past," Sanders wrote in an op-ed.

Our ruling

Sanders said that Biden advocated for Social Security cuts for 40 years. The record is much more nuanced than that. Over his decades in the Senate, Biden generally pushed to protect Social Security, but he also supported ideas that would reduce Social Security benefits over time.

The audio in the Sanders ad of Biden calling for a total freeze on government spending dates back 25 years. About 13 years ago, Biden said he was open to benefit reductions, and then a few months later, said increasing taxes was better than reducing benefits.

During the Obama administration, he was on board with a proposal that would have reduced benefits about four percentage points over four decades. That was in the context of a sweeping budget deal, and ultimately, it went nowhere. But also during those years, Biden was part of efforts to protect Social Security from automatic cuts under sequestration.

Biden’s current policy is to increase Social Security benefits.

The claim contains elements of truth, but leaves out important facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.

Our Sources

Bernie Sanders, Protect Social Security, March 11, 2020

U.S. Congress, A bill to provide for a 7 percent increase in social security benefits, Sept. 10, 1973

The News Journal, Biden, Clatworthy argue Social Security, Oct. 25, 1996

NBC News, Meet the Press transcript, April 29, 2007

C-SPAN, Democratic Presidential Candidates Debate, Sept. 26, 2007

U.S. Congress, A resolution protecting social security beneficiaries from cola cuts, May 23, 2003

Brookings Institution, The fiscal fights of the Obama administration, Dec. 8, 2016

Congressional Research Service, The Budget Control Act of 2011, Aug. 19, 2011

Bernie Sanders for President, MEMO: How Social Security Could Swing The Primary & General Election, March 8, 2020 

The Intercept, FACT CHECK: JOE BIDEN HAS ADVOCATED CUTTING SOCIAL SECURITY FOR 40 YEARS, Jan. 13, 2020

Urban Institute, African American Economic Security and the Role of Social Security, July 24, 2019

PolitiFact, The fight between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders over Social Security, explained, Jan. 22, 2020

PolitiFact, Obama says his plan made "some adjustments" to Simpson-Bowles, Oct. 11, 2012

U.S.House Budget Committee, The Path to Prosperity, April 2011

The Hill, Leading House Democrats say Social Security cuts are a nonstarter, June 23, 2011

Politico, Boehner rallies GOP on debt limit, July 12, 2011

Politico, Progressives slam chained CPI plan, Dec. 19, 2012

Politico, The cliff deal that almost wasn't, Jan. 2, 2013

Brookings, The fiscal fights of the Obama administration, Dec. 8, 2016

Associated Press, Sanders' Social Security 'adjustments' undercut Biden attack, Jan. 29, 2020

New York Times, Senators reject spending freeze, May 3, 1984

AARP, AARP Presidential Candidate Forum: Health Care, High Drug Prices Among Top Issues, July 15, 2019

Congressional Record, April 25, 1984

Congressional Record, Nov. 16, 1995

ABC News, In VP Debate, Biden Seemed to Overstate His Role in Social Security Reform, Oct. 16, 2012

Joe Biden, Transcript of speech at Brookings Institution, April 18, 2018

C-SPAN, Joe Biden speech at Brookings Institution, April 18, 2018

Washington Post, Sanders vs. Biden on Social Security: A guide to the claims, March 8, 2020

Email exchange, Warren Gunnels, senior policy advisor, Sanders for President, March 11, 2020

Email exchange, Michael Gwin, spokesman, Biden for President, March 11, 2020

 

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