U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL,9) and Xavier Becerra (D-CA,34) joined forces Friday to denounce Republican-backed budget plans that set the stage for cuts to the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program.
Speaking at a Chicago press conference with seniors and people with disabilities, Schakowsky and Becerra said the Republican budget resolutions that cleared the GOP-led House and Senate last week put 11 million SSDI beneficiaries at risk of having their benefits slashed by up to 20 percent.
"In Congress, we're watching as another crisis is being manufactured as we speak," said Becerra, House Democratic Caucus chairman and ranking member on the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee. "In the not too distant future, it will not surprise many of us if we watch some of our colleagues in Congress try to make the case that the disability insurance program cannot pay benefits, and that is flat out untrue."
Social Security provides insurance benefits to retirees, children, surviving spouses and the disabled.
The Disability Insurance Trust Fund needs to be replenished by the end of 2016 in order to avert an across-the-board cut to SSDI of up to 20 percent.
On several occasions in the past, money has been reallocated from the Social Security trust fund that pays retirement and survivor benefits to the Disability Insurance Trust Fund, and vice versa, to guarantee benefits are paid in full.
"We've done it because it's one Social Security" program, said Becerra, who noted that Social Security has $2.8 trillion in its reserves. "Republicans are saying, 'No, you can't do that [reallocation]'. And they have rigged this so that it will look like the disability insurance program cannot pay, when in fact it can."
Republicans in both the House and Senate passed their respective fiscal blueprints last week for the 2016 federal fiscal year, and negotiators from both chambers will now have to cobble together a joint budget. In the budget resolutions, Becerra said Republicans inserted "a provision that requires that there be a cut of up to 20 percent for Americans who are receiving disability insurance, unless the Congress comes up with a plan to bring in additional dollars into the disability insurance program."
Across-the-board cuts to SSDI are "absolutely not necessary," stressed Schakowsky, co-chair of the House Democratic Caucus Seniors Task Force.
"Eleven times there's been money transferred into the disability insurance fund, and we should do it now," she said.
The congresswoman also pushed back on the fraud and abuse rhetoric being thrown around against disability beneficiaries.
"There's this image that somehow people have to be prevented from abusing the disability insurance part of Social Security," the congresswoman said. "That is absolutely not true. It is a lifeline for people who are disabled, and a very modest one at that."
Currently, the average SSDI benefit is $1,146 a month, or about $13,700 annually, Schakowsky said.
Among those who would be put in a difficult circumstance if SSDI cuts go through is Tim Sullivan, who receives disability insurance and spoke at the press conference. Sullivan, 55, has a form of muscular dystrophy and uses a power wheelchair. The Chicagoan said SSDI is his "life support."
"It helps me live independently," he said. "It helps me pay my bills [and] go out and meet with friends and other colleagues."
A reduction in SSDI benefits could result in Sullivan having to rely on family members for financial support or being forced into a nursing home, he said.
Speaking about the Republicans, Becerra added, "We don't think you should try to spook people into believing that they're not going to get their benefits, because the reality is Tim has to live, and he doesn't have a choice. And to play that game is vicious with the American people when you have $2.8 trillion sitting in the Social Security system trust fund exactly to provide benefits to people like Tim."
Here's more from Sullivan and Schakowsky:
Becerra and Schakowsky said they can be counted on to defend Social Security from attacks.
"We cannot afford to see politicians try to break Social Security up into small parts," Becerra stressed. "It's one program for all Americans, and we will fight to make sure it stays as one program --strong, and growing stronger -- for all Americans."