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The Fiscal Commission Is a "Death Panel"

Medicare and Social Security

(This is a reprint from PSARA’s March 2024 Advocate)

By Jaisri Lingappa and Robby Stern

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Jaisri Lingappa

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Robby Stern

Republicans and a few “business” Democrats in Congress are determined to set up a fast-track process to cut Social Security and Medicare.


They know from experience that they can’t do this out in the open – their previous attempts resulted in massive public outcries. Indeed, polling from Data for Progress last month showed that 70 percent of voters, including 71 percent of Republican voters, oppose the idea of cutting Social Security and Medicare.


Instead, the GOP is using a backdoor approach to achieve their goal by demanding a bipartisan fiscal commission to examine potential cuts to Social Security and Medicare as a means of reducing the debt. The House Budget Committee voted on Jan 18, 2024, to advance this fiscal commission (HR 5779) to the floor of the House.


The legislation provides that the commission will develop its recommendations behind closed doors. Four non-voting members of this 16-member commission would be from outside of Congress.  Thus, the discussions that will decide the fate of these critical social insurance programs will be held in secret with a small number of unelected individuals influencing the outcome. The favorable vote of two of the Democrats appointed to the commission is all that it will take to forward the proposal to Congress. The commission’s voting process is designed to make it likely that the recommendation will be to cut earned benefits, a stated goal of the Republican Party.


The legislation also sets up a fast-track vote by Congress on the commission’s recommendations, with a limit of a two hour debate, no amendments permitted, followed by an up or down vote in each chamber. Removing the vote from the democratic process provided by “regular order” means our elected representatives will be prevented from proposing changes to the commission recommendations. 

Initially, the GOP intended to insert this bill into one of the two budget bills that need to be passed to keep the government running. As of this writing, one of those bills remains to be voted on and could still be linked to the fiscal commission bill. But even if the budget passes without this bill, there will be many other opportunities for the fiscal commission legislation to be pushed through, including during the lame-duck session after the election. So voters will need to stay vigilant.

The White House has called the commission a “death panel for Medicare and Social Security.” Biden likely had the fiscal commission in mind when he said during his March 7 State of the Union speech: “If anyone here tries to cut Social Security or Medicare or raise the retirement age, I will stop them.” He went on to say “I will protect and strengthen Social Security and make the wealthy pay their fair share!” Currently the wealthy pay into Social Security only for their first $168,000 in wages annually. The White House wants to raise that cap. Moreover, in a March 7, 2024, fact sheet, the White House proposed to “modestly increase the Medicare tax rate on income above $400,000” and close loopholes in existing Medicare taxes. These proposals would go a long way in funding Social Security and Medicare without increasing the debt or increasing the tax burden on lower- and middle-income earners.


Even though President Biden appears to be on our side, it would not be wise to count on a Presidential veto in the event that Congress passes the fiscal commission legislation as part of another piece of “must pass” legislation. Shortly after President Biden’s State of the Union speech, former President Trump showed his willingness to consider cuts to Social Security and Medicare in a CNBC interview. This is no surprise. The GOP has long prioritized cuts to Social Security and Medicare, with strategies such as raising the eligibility age, reducing cost-of-living adjustments, and reducing benefit amounts.  


We should not take any chances. We must prevent the bill enacting the fiscal commission from passing the full House of Representatives, since it would then have a high likelihood of being passed in the Senate.


And we shouldn’t stop at just preserving Social Security and Medicare. A big part of what is needed is to make these programs work better. Excellent legislative proposals exist that would fix the Social Security funding gap and even expand benefits for the first time in 50 years. And to fix Medicare, we need to “Level the Playing Field” between the Medicare Advantage plans offered by the for-profit insurance industry and Traditional Medicare, which is currently hamstrung by rules limiting what it can offer.


PSARA will try to keep you as up-to-date as we can on the attacks that are being mounted on Social Security and Medicare and what we can do to deny success to those who attack the programs while cynically saying they are saving them.


Jaisri Lingappa is a University of Washington Professor Emeritus of Global Health and a member of PSARA's Jefferson County Organizing Committee. 

Robby Stern is President of the PSARA Education Fund and a member of PSARA's Executive Board

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