Former Vice President Joe Biden is running for the White House this year as an avowed champion of Social Security despite his decades-long effort to freeze spending for the program to cut the federal budget deficit.
The Democrat nominee, who has promised to expand Social Security benefits if elected, has been lambasting President Donald Trump in recent weeks for pushing a proposal to cut payroll taxes in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic. Biden has argued, in both television ads and on the campaign trail, that cutting payroll taxes will create a structural problem for the Social Security trust fund.
“For our seniors, Social Security is a sacred obligation, a sacred promise made,” the former vice president’s campaign says in one ad. “The current president’s threatening to break that promise. He’s proposing to eliminate a tax that pays for almost half the Social Security without any way of making up for that lost revenue.”
Such attacks have not only been proven false by fact-checkers, but they’ve also underscored, especially for many on the left, Biden’s own complicated history with the “sacred obligation” that is Social Security.
Although initially elected to the United States in 1972 as a proponent of the program, Biden’s views on the sanctity of Social Security began to evolve during President Ronald Reagan’s eight years in the White House. The change in thinking was precipitated by a surging budget deficit due, in part, to Reagan’s 1981 tax cut package. Even though Biden had voted for the tax cuts as a United States Senator from Delaware, he quickly began to raise concerns about the deficit and its corresponding increase to the national debt, which by the end of Reagan’s tenure in office would swell from $997 billion to more than $2.6 trillion.
The issue first came to a head in 1984, when Reagan proposed a series of spending cuts to reduce the deficit ahead of his reelection race that November. At the time, polls showed the deficit was the one area where Reagan, a noted champion of small government, might be vulnerable to Democrat attacks. Given the situation, the president outlined in that year’s State of the Union address a desire to negotiate a bipartisan deal with Congress to cut the deficit by $100 million over three years.
The negotiation between the Reagan administration and Congress took much of the year, with little success. A particular sticking point for Democrats was the president’s desire to reduce the deficit by roughly $144 billion over three years, while simultaneously boosting defense spending by eight percent. Reagan attempted to sell Democrats on the deal by arguing that the increase was actually less than the $40 billion defense spending was estimated to grow throughout the late-1980s.
Democrats were also not sold on other portions of Reagan’s proposal including broad reductions in domestic spending, even after the White House agreed to raise taxes by more than $47 billion over four years.
One of the Senate Democrats opposed to Reagan’s plan was Biden. Unlike more liberal members of the Senate Democrat conference, such as the late-Ted Kennedy, Biden opposed Reagan’s proposal because he felt it did not go far enough and fast enough.
As the negotiations over a deficit-reduction package picked up speed on Capitol Hill, Biden joined forces with two of his Republican colleagues on the Senate Budget Committee to propose their own alternative. Instead of making Congress vote for cuts to social or defense spending in an election year, the trio, which included Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), suggested a one-year freeze in all federal spending.
By Biden and Grassley’s estimations such a freeze, which would include entitlement programs like Social Security, would cut the deficit by $266 billion over three years–a figure even larger than that being proposed by Reagan.
The proposal quickly proved untenable for both the Reagan administration and more liberal Democrats in Congress. Reagan, in particular, took issues with the freeze because it would prevent an already agreed upon pay increase for members of the military. Liberals, on the other hand, considered the freeze a defacto cut to Social Security, since it would not provide a scheduled cost of living increase for the elderly, many of whom were already living on tighter budgets because of Reagan’s previous cuts to the program.
Biden, who was running for a third Senate term that year in business-friendly Delaware, seemed to understand the political risk.
“While this program is severe, it is the only proposal that will halt the upward spiral of deficits,” he said at the time, as reported by ABC News, before adding that it was the only way to prevent an “economic and political crisis.”
Biden repeated such concerns on the Senate floor later that year when arguing for the freeze to his colleagues.
“The only way that Congress will ever be able to come to grips with deficits is by dealing with all federal programs as a package,” Biden said in April 1984, according to the Congressional Record. “This can happen when the beneficiaries of each program see that all others are being treated similarly.”
“Only our bipartisan budget freezes all aspects of the budget,” he added at the time.
In another portion of the speech, Biden directly addressed the impact his proposed budget freeze would have on Social Security.
“So, when those of my friends in the Democratic and Republican Party say to me, ‘How do you expect me to vote for your proposal? Does it not freeze Social Security [cost of living adjustments] for 1 year? Are we not saying there will be no cost-of-living increases for one year?’ The answer to that is ‘Yes,’ that is what I am saying,” he told the Senate, adding that without reining in the deficit more difficult decisions would be required later.
Although the Biden-Grassley spending freeze was defeated by the Senate in May 1984 by a landslide vote (65 to 33), the political risks associated with it never materialized. That November, Biden won reelection by more than 20 percentage points, even as Reagan carried Delaware by a similar margin.
Despite losing the initial vote in 1984, Biden continued championing a freeze to federal spending, including Social Security, well afterward. In November 1987, shortly after ending his first bid for the Democrat nomination, Biden rallied a bipartisan group of senators to propose a spending freeze for the final year of the Reagan administration. Biden’s proposal was no less controversial in 1987 than in 1984 because of its implications for Social Security.
At the time, the Dayton Daily News reported that Biden, noting his own history of securing reelection while championing the policy, was attempting to reassure congressional colleagues that “you can say freeze and …. still have a political life after [budget] freezes.”
Biden’s commitment to reducing the deficit, even at the expense of programs like Social Security, was further displayed throughout the 1990s. One instance, in particular, emerged during the congressional fight over a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1994.
Initially, Biden signaled his support for the amendment but argued that Social Security should be carved out, since it’s spending would be consistently in fluctuation depending on the retirement age and number of beneficiaries. When attempts to carve out Social Security failed, Biden still opted to vote for the amendment as a whole, claiming the choice was between an “imperfect amendment or continued spending.”