Fact Check: Trump Accuses Biden of Having Tried to ‘Hurt Social Security’

CLAIM: President Donald Trump criticized his Democrat opponent, Joe Biden, at the final debate of the general election on Thursday for trying to “hurt social security” over his decades-long career in public office.

Verdict: True.

Since the early 1980s, Biden has in one form or another championed freezing all federal spending in the short term to curb the deficit. The proposal has often made Biden the subject of antagonism from both the right and the left, given that a federal spending freeze would impact entitlement programs, including Social Security.

Progressives, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), have pilloried Biden on the topic in recent years, arguing that a freeze would amount to a de facto cut to Social Security, since halting federal spending at the prior year’s level would also stall pre-scheduled cost of living increases. Evidence shows that elderly Americans, who already live on tight budgets, rely on such increases annually to cover medical and other expenses.

Apart from championing budgetary freezes to programs like Social Security, Biden has also shown a willingness to put Social Security and other entitlements on the negotiating table in order to lower the deficit. During the Obama years, the former vice president actively pursued a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction with congressional Republicans.

Starting in early-2011, Biden began holding talks with top congressional leaders, including then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, on just how such a “grand bargain” could be achieved. Those talks, profiled in Bob Woodward’s book The Price of Politics, indicated that Biden was eager to strike a deal, even if it came at the expense of Social Security.

As Woodward wrote, Biden was close to hammering out a deal in mid-2011 that would have cut federal spending by $2 trillion, including programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Food Stamps. When Republicans fretted over proposed tax increases, especially allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire, Biden suggested a compromise by raising the retirement age for Social Security and also creating a mechanism to means-test the program.

At the time, Biden also pitched Republicans on a relatively obscure change to the cost of living formula in hopes of sealing a deal. Biden, in particular, sought to amend the formula that determined the cost of living adjustments for programs like Social Security. At the time, Biden suggested that such programs in the future be tied to the United States Chained Consumer Price Index (Chained CPI) rather than the current United States Consumer Price Index.

Chained CPI is predicated on the notion that when the cost of living increases because of changes in the prices of goods, consumers will adjust their purchasing patterns to make up for the rise. The theory suggests that even though cost of living might increase on paper, the impact is negligible on consumers.

Had Biden succeeded in tying Social Security and other entitlements to Chained CPI, it would have cut the expected growth in program benefits that recipients had become accustomed to over time. Attaching Social Security to Chained CPI has long been opposed by progressives and advocacy groups like the AARP on the grounds that seniors are more impacted by inflation since a significant portion of their incomes go to medical costs, which are always rising at rates higher than the rest of the economy.

Even though Biden attempted to make Chained CPI central to the deficit negotiation, the talks ultimately fell apart when congressional Republicans were unable to sell any proposed revenue increases to their members.

Despite the failure, Biden, with Obama’s backing continued trying to forge a “grand bargain” on deficit reduction in 2012 and 2013. Each time the talks included tying Chained CPI to Social Security and other entitlements programs.

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