By Daniel Marans
November 17, 2011 - 6:13pm ET
Days after the tents were ripped out of Zucotti Park in
New York, hundreds of Americans brought the fight for
the 99% to the nation's capital on Thursday with a
"Wake-Up Congress" rally calling for the Super Committee
to support "Jobs, Not Cuts" to key social programs.
Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) fittingly called it
Thursday's town hall-style event, organized by the
Strengthen Social Security Campaign and other advocacy
groups, was aimed at influencing the Super Committee,
and the lawmakers who will vote on their proposal,
against cutting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
The lawmakers on hand shared the stage with ordinary
Americans who came to explain the importance of Social
Security, Medicare and Medicaid in their lives, and the
harm that cuts would cause them.
If the goal of the rally was to "Wake Up Congress," the
message to which attendees wanted Congress to wake up
was that "No deal is better than a bad deal." Those on
hand sought to push back against the conventional wisdom
that the failure of the Super Committee to come up with
$1.2 trillion in deficit reduction and the subsequent
sequestration would be worse for the economy than a deal
agreed to by the Super Committee members.
Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)
and Ben Cardin (D-MD) spoke, as well as Representative
Rosa DeLauro (D-CT). But the hero, organizer and
unofficial emcee of the event was Senator Sanders, who
is far and away the most stalwart defender of social
insurance programs in the United States Congress. The
retirees, community members and activists who assembled
there treated Sanders like a celebrity. Sanders'
entrance and exit were greeted with chants of "Bernie,
Bernie, Bernie," the likes of which are usually reserved
for popular sports players.
Sanders gave plainspoken arguments against cutting
Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to reduce the
country's deficit. "Here's the issue: The issue is that
in fact, this country does have a serious deficit
problem," Sanders said. "But the reality is that the
deficit was caused by two wars not paid for, huge tax
breaks for the wealthiest people in this country, and a
recession as a result of the greed, recklessness and
illegal behavior on Wall Street. And if those are the
causes of the deficit and the national debt I will be
damned if we're going to balance the budget on the backs
of the elderly, the sick, children, and the poor. That's
The speakers focused their criticism on two proposals
that the Super Committee is rumored to be considering:
the chained CPI (Consumer Price Index), which would
reduce the Social Security COLA (cost-of-living
adjustment); and an increase in the Medicare eligibility
age from 65 to 67.
Senator Mikulski summed up the policy argument against
the chained CPI. Mikulski effectively pointed out that
the chained CPI's logic of "price substitution" does not
apply to seniors for whom health care costs make up the
vast majority of expenses. "Sure, maybe you can switch
to Dunkin Donuts from a latte if you're young, but what
are seniors going to do as drug prices go up?" Mikulski
asked incredulously. "Will they substitute an expensive
drug with water?"
(Another of Senator Mikulski's memorable lines: "So here
we are on the brink of Thanksgiving. We are so mired in
partisanship that we can't seem to find a path forward.
They think we [members of Congress] are the turkeys.
Wherever I go in my state, they're telling Congress to
Senator Sanders spoke out strongly against raising the
Medicare eligibility age, citing the cases of 65- and
66-year-olds who would have trouble getting private
health insurance to cover their care. "If a 66-year-old
gets cancer, what private health insurance is going to
cover his treatment?" Sanders asked, before answering
his own question. "The answer is none."
It was the stories of some half dozen average Americans
who spoke, however, that brought the hard numbers of the
benefit cuts a human face. The people who testified
included retirees on modest incomes, adults living with
cerebral palsy and other disabilities, and people who
lost parents and spouses upon whom they were financially
Marilyn Dixon-Hill from Camden, NJ, 58 years old, worked
as a nurse for thirty years. A year ago to the day of
the rally, Marilyn suffered from a disease that left her
paralyzed. She has since regained the ability to walk,
which she calls "a miracle," but remains seriously
physically impaired. As a result, she is unable to work
and has begun collecting Social Security disability
Currently Marilyn has no medical insurance. Like other
disability beneficiaries, Marilyn must wait two years to
begin receiving Medicare benefits. "I need Medicare. I
need Medicaid. No Cuts to Social Security," Marilyn
cried, tearing up as she said it. "These are safety nets
for vulnerable people like myself." Marilyn shared the
concerns of many of the other speakers that benefit cuts
would jeopardize their independence. "My fear is that
with any cuts, I will not be able to care for myself and
be a burden on my adult children, who have their own
burdens in this economic system."
The speaker who received perhaps the greatest applause
was a retired Virginia man named Kenyon Peas. Peas, a
retired union worker and veteran of the US military,
paid into Social Security since 1958, when, at age 15,
he worked as an amusement park ride operator. Peas'
Social Security check paid the out-of-pocket costs from
serious medical problems, including a heart attack, and
the removal of one-third of his lung, as well as Type 2
Diabetes, from which he continues to suffer. "Is this
the way the United States honors its commitments?" Peas
asked of plans to cut the programs. "The debt we owe
China and others will most assuredly be repaid. Bank of
America, among others, is too big to fail. We bailed
them out. If you're a working man or woman, we'll cut
your benefits, freeze or eliminate your COLA, and ask
for your vote."
Thursday's rally in the Senate was the culmination in a
series of actions by activists across the country
protesting potential cuts to the three key programs. It
started two weeks ago, when several thousand nurses and
other union workers from around the country rallied in
front of the White House and Treasury Department. They
came from places as far away as Bemidji, Minnesota, to
tell Congress to tax Wall Street-not cut the programs
Americans need now more than ever.
Then more than 1,000 seniors from the Jane Addams Senior
Caucus joined forces with #OccupyChicago to protest cuts
to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid in Chicago,
on November 7. The intergenerational solidarity against
the tyranny of the 1% was a fitting refutation of
conservative attempts to pit young against old.
Most recently, 3,200 seniors and union workers gathered
in Wang Theatre in Boston to demonstrate against cuts to
Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, on November 9.
The momentum of popular movements to prevent cuts to
Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid shows no signs of
abating. The American people are finally making their
voices heard. Now it is up to Congress to listen.
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