By Andrew Kaczynski and Em Steck, CNN
President Joe Biden and the White House have attacked Republicans in recent months for positions the president himself once held on Social Security and entitlement programs including sunset bills and raising the retirement age, a CNN KFile review of Biden’s record shows.
In his State of the Union address earlier this year, and in the months since, Biden has hammered Republicans over entitlements, saying they want to cut Social Security and Medicare. The president zeroed in on Florida Sen. Rick Scott’s sunset plan — though Biden himself introduced a similar proposal in 1975 — which would have sunset all legislation without exemptions for the two entitlement programs. Once Biden started attacking Scott for the lack of exemptions for the entitlement programs, Scott added that his sunset provisions would not apply to Social Security or Medicare.
Biden first introduced a proposal in 1975 that would have ceased funding all federal programs — including Social Security and Medicare — unless they were reauthorized by Congress. In fact, Biden’s bill was the first so-called federal sunset bill, something the president later boasted about in his 1978 Senate reelection campaign.
Biden has also attacked Republicans, saying congressional Republicans want to cut the two entitlement programs and raise the retirement age to 70. The White House vowed to not support any increase in the retirement age in any future negotiations with Republicans even though Biden himself once proposed raising the retirement age as life expectancy went up.
Biden, in one exchange pushing back against plans by then-President George W. Bush to partially privatize Social Security in 2005, said he was open to discussing benefit cuts to guarantee the solvency of the program.
“Raising the cap, raising the retirement age for people who are now 30 years old, raising the tax on Social Security, cutting benefits,” Biden said. “They’re all things that have to be discussed, quite frankly.”
In other clips from the 1980’s uncovered by CNN’s KFile, Biden proposed raising the retirement age up to possibly 70, saying that life expectancy in the United States supported retiring later. Biden also said he was open to raising the retirement age in the mid and late 2000s.
The White House pointed to past Biden votes in the 1980s, which extended to the solvency of Social Security to say the president had always been a “champion” for the program, along with his endorsement from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. But the White House has not proposed any long-term fixes to guarantee the solvency of the programs.
“President Biden has publicly pledged to veto any plan that cuts Social Security or Medicare benefits or raises taxes on Americans making less than $400,000 per year,” White House spokesperson Robyn Patterson told CNN in an email.
“President Biden earned the first-ever presidential endorsement from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare because Americans appreciate his decades-long support for protecting the Social Security and Medicare benefits seniors have spent their working lives earning,” Patterson continued.
On ‘sunset legislation’
Biden once boasted that he was the first person to introduce a bill to require all federal programs be reauthorized or cease to be funded — including Medicare and Social Security.
Now, Biden is attacking some Republicans over proposals to do the same, citing a plan from Scott which — until recent changes — would have also sunset all federal legislation.
“I introduced the Senate’s first ever free-standing sunset bill in 1975,” Biden wrote in an article in 1984 for the Syracuse Law Review, referencing a 1975 bill he introduced that did not include exemptions for Social Security and Medicare. That bill passed the Senate by a vote of 87-1, but later failed in the House.
Though Scott has since updated his bill to say it does not apply to the two programs, Biden has continued to beat the drum on what he alleges are Republicans’ plans — seeing it as a winning issue against the GOP in both short term budget battles and a possible 2024 reelection.
“For example, Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the guy has been saying for a year — for a long time that he wants to sunset Social Security and Medicare every five years,” Biden said in Virginia Beach in late February. “What that means is: Every five years it comes up, if you don’t vote for it back in existence again with the same — exactly like it was, it goes away. Or you can reduce it. You can do whatever you want. But every five years, it has to be voted on. Now he says, ‘Never mind’. Don’t need to do that.”
Biden’s proposal would have actually sunset legislation quicker than Scott’s — four years instead of five — but subsequent compromises he supported changed the period to a decade.
In his first reelection campaign in 1978, Biden, then a noted critic in the press of his opposition to excessive federal spending, boasted about his efforts at debates and in television ads to enact sunset legislation.
“I wanted four years, but I’ll take 10 years, because right now we don’t have any ‘sunset,” Biden said at one debate, citing a compromise bill from that year which exempted federal entitlements like Social Security and Medicare and extended the sunset period to ten years for other legislation.
In the mid-1970s, inflation was historically high, and Biden suggested cutting federal spending as one way to fight it — including, according to The News Journal, a local paper, “restructuring” Social Security.
“If the reason we have inflation is because of deficit spending, and the reason for that is because we’re spending more than we’re taking in, how can we not cut programs and still balance the budget?”
A report from the Congressional Research Service, a division of the Library of Congress which conducts research for the United States Congress, credits Biden with introducing the first ever federal sunset bill. In 1999, the Republican-led House Budget Committee also credited Biden with bringing the first ever sunset bill to the federal level.
In 1975, Biden noted his bill applied to all federal spending, both large and small.
“This bill applies to all authorizations for spending,” Biden said introducing his bill. “It is not just the size of our budget that is staggering, but even more the rate at which it is increasing. We cannot long continue such growth rates in expenditures.”
In his 1984 article, Biden also said, “the effect of sunset legislation is to set, for each agency of the federal government, a date certain at which its programs will be terminated unless they are affirmatively revived by Congress.”
“The purpose is to force the agencies, at regular intervals, to justify their missions and functions before Congress. That puts the responsibility on the agencies, where it belongs, and it would have a tonic effect in keeping agency actions in accord with congressional intent,” he wrote.
Raising the retirement age up to 70
“They’re going to increase the retirement age for Social Security and shrink benefits,” Biden said in a November speech.
Biden, in a 1987 speech to college students, argued that the Social Security program would face a solvency crisis for the baby boomers and later generations saying, “I realize it’s taboo for a Democrat to even discuss the Social Security system in any terms other than to say, ‘don’t touch anything.'”
To solve this, Biden proposed tying Social Security to actuarial tables on life expectancy — something CNN’s KFile found he proposed on multiple occasions in the 1980s.
“In the year 2010 we are going to change the retirement age for Social Security,” Biden said in a 1987 speech available on C-SPAN. “You cannot retire at age 65. You have to be 65 years and three months old. And in the year 2012, 65 years and six months in the year — literally raise incrementally the retirement age, beginning around the year 2010.”
“Approximately three months per year or every two years, until you reach you either between 68 and 70 depending on what the actuarial tables are at the time and what people’s life expectancy really are, but at least 68. And early retirement now with reduced benefits can retire at 62, change that to 65.”
CNN also reviewed audio and video from Biden appearances in the 2000s, where he said he would be open to raising the retirement age.
“I wanna see what the president offers,” Biden said in one video from 2005. “I wanna see if it represents a solution, raising the cap, raising the retirement age for people who are now 30 years old, raising the tax on Social Security, cutting benefits. They’re all things that have to be discussed, quite frankly.”
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