In their first face-off, presidential hopefuls, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders sparred in a heated debate about Biden’s track record on Social Security legislation.
Overnight, this footage quickly made the rounds on social media, leaving voters asking whether claims about Biden’s shaky history on Social Security are true, false, or misinterpreted.
Let’s take a look at some key statements made in the debate.
“You’re running ads saying I’m opposed to Social Security that Politifact says is a flat lie, and that the Washington Post says is a flat lie.”
While both determine Sanders’ claims to be politicized and misleading, neither call his perspective on Biden’s record “a flat lie.”
The WaPo fact-check moves through Sanders’ specific claims with an eye to the larger context of the time—in their estimation, many of Biden’s moves on Social Security were made in times of financial crisis, made with bipartisan support, and ultimately succeeded in protecting Social Security. This includes his past support for raising the retirement age and using the chained CPI, both widely considered “cuts” today.
Politifact specifically takes aim at Sanders’ specific statement that Biden has consistently attacked Social Security throughout his career. Taken literally, it wouldn’t be correct to say Biden has consistently sought to cut Social Security:
- In 1973, Biden co-sponsored a bill to increase benefits.
- In 1995, he voted for an amendment to exclude Social Security from balanced budget amendments (though he later supported the balanced budget amendment when it did not include an exemption for Social Security).
- In 2003, Biden supported a Senate resolution opposing COLA cuts.
The truth is Biden HAS stepped up on behalf of Social Security throughout the years. However, for as many times as he’s voted to protect the program, he’s supported legislation to raise the retirement age, cut COLAs, and has openly included Social Security in his desires for blanket federal spending freezes.
In terms of a 40-year record, and despite his current day talking points about protecting and increasing Social Security, it would seem he has considered and will often support cuts should he feel there is a need to do so.
“Time and time again, talking about the necessity—with pride—about cutting Social Security, cutting Medicare, cutting veterans’ programs.”
Sanders is likely referring to a specific floor speech here. These were Biden’s words on the Senate floor during the balanced budget discussion of 1995:
WaPo points out in its fact-check that these statements are regarding total freezes on federal spending to rein in the deficit—not specifically just freezes for seniors’ programs.
“I was not a fan of Bowles-Simpson.”
The Bowles-Simpson Plan was a bipartisan deficit reduction plan put forth by the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, a commission organized by the Obama Administration in 2010.
Among other things, the plan sought to extend Social Security’s long-term solvency by proposing a variety of reforms. Opponents of the plan criticized its inclusion of a retirement age increase, blanket benefit cuts, and higher out-of-pocket Medicare costs.
Ultimately, the plan failed to secure the votes needed to recommend it to Congress.
“You were not a fan of the Balanced Budget Amendment which called for cuts in Social Security?”
While Biden did vote in favor of a bill that would have excluded Social Security reductions from the Balanced Budget Amendment in 1995, when it failed to gain support, he ultimately did vote in favor of the Balanced Budget Amendment.
“Why am I rated 96% by the Social Security organization?”
We’re not exactly sure which Social Security authority to which Senator Biden was referring, but he has received 89% approval by the Alliance for Retired Americans. We’re not able to verify a 96% approval rating from any pro-senior or pro-Social Security authority.
“I have laid out how I would increase Social Security. I have laid how I will make sure it is, in fact, paid for.”
Biden directs the public to his campaign site for an explanation on his Social Security increases and funding plans.
While his page clearly spells out his plans for increasing benefits (higher minimum payments for low income workers, increased benefits for survivors, and removing penalties for teachers and public servants), it is not described in great detail how these increases will be funded. The site simply states higher income workers will be asked to contribute the same amount as other workers. Presumably, this will be done by equalizing or eliminating the payroll tax cap.
Taking all of these facts into account, it looks as though Americans are right to question Biden’s protective stance on Social Security during his presidential campaign.
It is undeniable that while he has supported Social Security, he has simultaneously demonstrated a willingness to include Social Security in deficit reduction talks. Of course, this is only to discuss whether or not he has done so—not whether or not the context of situation justified those proposals or if they were supported at the time. That is another discussion entirely.
Given his past voting record and speeches, seniors have a legitimate concern. But even Sanders admits it is okay for a politician to change their opinions and platforms over time. We just need Biden to be transparent about his decisions in the past, explain why he made those decisions, and help us understand how he has evolved to his platform on Social Security today.