GUEST COMMENTARY - Sen. Joe Manchin provoked outrage Wednesday by suggesting congressional Democrats should agree to pursue changes to Social Security as part of a debt ceiling agreement with Republicans, an idea one advocacy group condemned as "negotiating with legislative terrorists."
In an interview on Fox Business—conducted at the annual gathering of corporate and political elites in Davos, Switzerland—the West Virginia Democrat said that "we have a debt problem" and argued members of both parties should "work together" on solutions. The senator singled out Social Security, even though the program can't by law add to long-term deficits.
While Manchin voiced opposition to GOP calls to privatize Social Security, saying such proposals "scare the bejesus out of people," he said Congress "should be able to solidify it, so the people who have worked and earned it know they're going to get it."
The problem, from the perspective of Social Security defenders, is Manchin's suggested avenue for reforms: Bipartisan congressional committees that critics have denounced as "a Trojan horse to cut seniors' benefits."
"Hell no to even a single penny of cuts to Social Security's earned benefits," the progressive group Social Security Works tweeted Wednesday in response to Manchin's comments. "Hell no to fast-track commissions designed to cut benefits behind closed doors."
Under legislation that Manchin has introduced alongside Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), Congress would establish bipartisan "rescue" committees for the nation's trust fund programs—including Social Security and Medicare—and give the panels 180 days to devise "legislation that restores solvency and otherwise improves each." (Analysts and advocates reject the notion that Social Security is in financial crisis and needs "rescuing.")
The bills produced by the bipartisan committees would then be placed on an expedited path to floor votes in both chambers of Congress, with no amendments allowed.
Manchin and Romney's legislation, known as the TRUST Act, is explicitly modeled after the infamous Simpson-Bowles Commission that recommended deep cuts to Social Security in 2011. Former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson (Wyo.) and former Clinton White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, the Obama-appointed chairs of the commission, both endorsed the TRUST Act in 2021, calling the bill "important and vital."
In his Fox Business interview on Wednesday, Manchin said his legislation could be used to secure a debt ceiling agreement with House Republicans, who have threatened repeatedly to use the borrowing limit as leverage to push for Social Security cuts.
Manchin told host Maria Bartiromo that he has spoken "briefly" with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) about the TRUST Act. Asked about the White House's stand against attaching any conditions to a debt ceiling agreement, Manchin said he "really" thinks the administration will reverse course and negotiate with Republicans.
Alex Lawson, the executive director of Social Security Works, told Common Dreams that President Joe Biden should "reiterate his commitment to only signing a clean debt limit increase, and specifically rule out a closed-door commission designed to cut Social Security," in response to the West Virginia Democrat's comments.
"Manchin is providing cover for Republican attacks on Social Security and Medicare," Lawson said. "Democrats must stand with President Biden in his calls for a clean debt ceiling [increase] and an end to Republican attacks on our earned benefits."
"MAGA extremists plan to use national debt they exacerbated with tax breaks for billionaires and profiteering corporations as an excuse to gut Social Security and Medicare."
Manchin's interview came hours before the federal government officially hit the $31.4 trillion debt ceiling on Thursday, prompting the Treasury Department to begin implementing "extraordinary measures" to ensure it can continue meeting its obligations as it awaits congressional action.
"The period of time that extraordinary measures may last is subject to considerable uncertainty, including the challenges of forecasting the payments and receipts of the U.S. government months into the future," Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen wrote in a letter to congressional leaders on Thursday. "I respectfully urge Congress to act promptly to protect the full faith and credit of the United States."
Lindsay Owens, executive director of the progressive Groundwork Collaborative, said it is "economically, fiscally, and morally irresponsible" for House Republicans to be playing games with the debt ceiling and "there's absolutely no reason for Sen. Manchin or anyone else to play along."
"We saw this movie in 2011 when politicians negotiated over the debt limit and ended up strangling the economy with years of devastating cuts for workers and families," Owens added. "We can't let that happen again.”
Failure to raise the debt limit—an arbitrary and arguably unconstitutional figure set by Congress—could result in the first-ever U.S. default and a devastating financial crisis, potentially wiping out millions of jobs.
Liz Zelnick, director of the Economic Security and Corporate Power program at Accountable.US, said in a statement Thursday that "whether or not the nation suffers a default crisis that could crush jobs is entirely up to MAGA extremists in Congress."
"The MAGA majority could vote today to meet the nation's prior debt obligations but instead a growing number want to manufacture a crisis to cut apart social safety nets for the most vulnerable Americans," said Zelnick. "Make no mistake: MAGA extremists plan to use national debt they exacerbated with tax breaks for billionaires and profiteering corporations as an excuse to gut Social Security and Medicare benefits for America's seniors and working people. They're dusting off an old conservative playbook: Make everyone else pay for their reckless giveaways to wealthy special interests."
(Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams where this was first published.)