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Too often in our economy the people we depend on the most are also the lowest paid and the least protected. In this month's episode of We the Podcast, we look at home health care workers -- a glaring example of workers who are worth much more than they're paid.

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Last week President Obama announced a budget that includes something called "Chained CPI" as a way to reduce Social Security benefits. I will not support it. And will not vote for any plan that includes cuts to benefits Americans have earned. The proposal has already sparked large protests by groups ranging from organized labor to nonpartisan veterans' organization. But what exactly is Chained CPI? And what makes cutting Social Security benefits so harmful right now?

To understand, here's some context. American families have traditionally depended on three legs of a stool to support them during their retirement: retirement plans from their employers, private savings, and Social Security. But over the past thirty years, two of those legs - personal savings and retirement plans - have been rotting away for the American middle class.

Americans used to be able to depend on their jobs to provide a stable retirement. In 1985, about 80 percent of employees at medium and large-sized companies had guaranteed pensions for their employees. Now that number stands at less than a third. Today, most seniors depend on savings from plans they contribute to, such as 401(k)'s. But these are a poor substitute, as employer contributions to individual plans are much stingier than defined benefit plans. In addition, investments are subject to the whims of the market, costing workers $2.8 billion dollars from their 401(k)'s during the financial crisis.

The story is even worse when it comes to personal savings. One in four households has insufficient net worth to subsist at the poverty rate for three months if they lose their jobs or income. The vast majority of Americans' wealth is in the equity in their home. Yet American homeowners lost more than half the value of their homes during the Great Recession for a total loss of $8 trillion.

As a result of this collapse of the first two legs of the stool, Americans now depend on Social Security more than ever. One third of all widowed women rely on Social Security for at least 90 percent of their income. And in an era of increasing income inequality, Social Security is the only lifeline many middle class seniors have.

Chained CPI would be a direct cut to the last leg of the stool. A typical senior retiring now would lose $650 a year by the time she is 75. By the time that retiree is 95, she will have lost $25,000 in Social Security cuts over the course of her retirement. For the 3.2 million disabled veterans who sacrificed for our country, it will mean they see reduced disability and Social Security benefits.

President Obama has done many things right in his budget negotiations with Republicans. In the face of Republican opposition to even the most common-sense job proposals, the President has been a steadfast advocate for investment, increased revenue and asking the most well-off to pay their fair share.

But this is about more than politics. It is about the senior in Hopkins, MN who lives on less than $22,000 and depends on Social Security to put food on the table. It is about the couple in Minneapolis who lost their home during the financial crisis and need Social Security more than ever. It is about the disabled veteran who served his country, but will now be hit with a double benefit cut because Washington refuses to close a single loophole for special interests.

Many say Chained CPI will not yield much in savings, so opposing it is an overreaction. But this is real money to seniors who are already struggling. There are ways to strengthen Social Security that don't cut the benefits millions of seniors depend on. In 2008, President Obama proposed raising the income cap on the Social Security payroll tax. Just by asking wealthy Americans to contribute to the Social Security trust fund from all of their income, as middle class Americans already do, we can make Social Security solvent for 75 years.

The American people agree. A poll just this week found that 7 in 10 voters oppose changing the way the cost of living is calculated through chained CPI, including 69% of Republicans and Independents. More than 8 in 10 believe Social Security should be considered separately from any budget discussions.

Democrats should not propose policies that hurt middle class families in the hope that Republicans will suddenly cooperate in solving our budget challenges. Republicans in Congress show no signs of accepting this offer - in fact they have already denounced it.

So instead of supporting policies that harm seniors, let's get back to the real problems facing this country--creating 21st century jobs in America, confronting climate change and growing income inequality, and making sure seniors have an adequate retirement on which to live. Let's oppose the Chained CPI.

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Thu Jan 10, 2013 at 09:07 AM PST

Cut Oil Subsidies, Not Jobs

by Keith Ellison

Last week, I said that if Congress has to make cuts, we should embrace the idea of ridding ourselves of wasteful giveaways to the fossil fuel industry. Here's an idea. Let’s cut the Master Limited Partnership loophole and fossil fuel subsidies.  

The Master Limited Partnership is an obscure but harmful multibillion dollar loophole that allows fossil fuel companies to avoid all income taxes on transportation or processing of fossil fuels—things like oil pipelines. Renewable energy companies don’t have the same option, meaning the taxpayer is subsidizing polluters at the expense of cleaner, renewable energy. The total cost to the taxpayer? 2.4 billion dollars every 5 years. Now, some folks propose to extend the Master Limited Partnership to green industries. That’s fine, but what about leveling the playing field and cutting the deficit at the same time?

The Master Limited Partnership is just one example of the billions of dollars in handouts that polluters get from Congress. For instance, BP was able to deduct nearly $10 billion from cleaning up its own mess in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the next 10 years, fossil fuel companies will receive over $110 billion in taxpayer giveaways. Ending these subsidies would recoup the $12 billion fossil fuel companies will be able to deduct by claiming they are manufacturers, and the almost $11 billion we will lose from free leases to drill on public land.

With all the chatter in Washington, it is easy to miss what is really at stake.  The debate is about our country's future; it's about fairness; it's about whether we invest in jobs or tax breaks for hedge fund managers, polluters, and already profitable industries.  It's about whether we level the playing field for sustainable energy or continue to give unnecessary and harmful tax breaks to oil companies who have been making record profits--and not paying their fair share.

It’s time for Republicans in Congress to put their money where their mouth is. Middle class families should not be forced to scrape by with less while oil companies get away with more. Any cuts we make should reflect our priorities and needs as a country. Rather than cutting important lifelines like Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, let’s cut corporate tax loopholes like the Master Limited Partnership. The five largest oil companies made more than $1 trillion in profits in the last decade. They don’t need our help.

UPDATE: Many of you asked how we can end wasteful tax breaks like the Master Limited Partnership. I introduced a bill with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). You can find out more here.

Discuss

With yesterday's vote behind us, Americans face an even bigger fight in the coming months: funding our government, avoiding devastating cuts known as sequestration, and avoiding default on our country's bills.  The most recent negotiations saw a massive grassroots effort that successfully protected Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid benefits and investments in the middle class.  In the coming negotiations, we must continue the fight. Here's what we should do.

First, no more hostage taking. Last August, Republicans held the full faith and credit of the United States hostage in exchange for over $1 trillion in cuts that hit middle class families hardest. Everything from student loans for college students to fixing our crumbling roads and bridges was threatened by these cuts. President Obama is right to refuse to negotiate over paying the nation's credit card bills. The debt ceiling has been raised dozens of times in the past, including 18 times by Ronald Reagan.  We must join him in calling for a clean increase of the debt ceiling.

Second, protect Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits. Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are the backbone of every family's income when they most need it.  Medicare alone provides health care to 40 million American seniors and more than 8 million Americans with disabilities--and does so at a fraction of the cost of private insurance.

Inevitably, we are going to be asked about the rising cost of health care. We should welcome this conversation.  Allowing Medicare Part D to negotiate lower drug prices for seniors--just like the Veterans Administration already does-- will save more than $150 billion over 10 years.  But cutting benefits has nothing to do with cutting health care costs, and actually increases costs for seniors. Raising the retirement age for Medicare would cost our own family members over $2,000 and increase health care costs by over $11 trillion.  We won a significant victory in protecting benefits for our family members in these negotiations, and we must firmly oppose efforts to throw American families under the bus disguised as deficit reduction.

Third, additional savings should come from new revenue and the Pentagon, and any deal must include investments in American's number one priority - new jobs. The middle class should not continue to foot the bill for tax breaks for millionaires and billionaires. With over $1.7 trillion already cut from programs for American families and less than half of that amount raised in revenue, we have a long way to go before we have a balanced approach.  We could save over $110 billion just by eliminating wasteful subsidies to oil and gas companies. My Inclusive Prosperity Act would raise hundreds of billions dollars just by taxing Wall Street trades by a fraction of 1 percent. Six members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus have already proposed principles of tax reform, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers have called for Pentagon savings to be included in any negotiation.

The American people have our back. By large margins, people want us reduce the deficit by asking those who have benefited most over the past few decades to pay their fair share, and they recognize that cutting Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security benefits will only make our problems worse. In the end, our success will depend upon a grassroots movement to protect these priorities. As Abraham Lincoln said, "With public sentiment, nothing can fail. Without it, nothing can succeed." Now it's up to us to make sure Congress listens.

Discuss

Last month, Dorothy Cooper, a 96 year-old African-American woman from Chattanooga, Tennessee, went to the ballot box to vote. Dorothy was born before women had the right to vote and when Jim Crow laws kept most African-Americans disenfranchised. Despite this, Dorothy has not missed a single election since 1960. Like many seniors, Dorothy has a Social Security card, a local photo ID issued by the Chatanooga Police Department—and a voter registration card.

Dorothy also has a rent receipt, a copy of her lease, and birth certificate. But a new Tennessee law requires all voters to have a valid state-issued voter ID in order to vote in the 2012 election. Because Dorothy took her husband’s name at marriage, the state will not accept her birth certificate (or any of her other forms of identification). And because Dorothy doesn’t have her marriage certificate, having been married decades ago, the state of Tennessee prohibits her from obtaining the ID needed to vote.

Dorothy is not alone.  In Indiana, 12 nuns were denied the right to vote in the last presidential election because they didn't have "updated" identification. The facts that some of them had old passports, they were in their 80s and 90s and didn't drive--or that they're nuns--seemed not to be a good basis for affirming their identities.  

These are not isolated incidents. They are part of the largest effort to disenfranchise voters since the Jim Crow era, almost exclusively targeting youth and minority voters.. A recent study by the Brennan Center for Justice estimates that the Republican effort could make it harder for more than five million eligible voters to cast ballots in 2012.  

This year, thirty-four state legislatures introduced bills requiring photo identification in order to vote. This rash of legislation classifies several previously accepted IDs as unacceptable, and will affect roughly 21 million Americans if they are passed.  For the first time in our nation’s history, we would shrink the voting franchise instead of expanding it.  

These are solutions in search of a problem. Statistics show an infinitesimal number of proven voting fraud cases occurring in the United States. And these few cases have been successfully prosecuted like any other criminal offense.

Groups promoting these laws, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), argue there's rampant voter fraud.  Oddly enough this "fraud" seems to be occurring only within historically Democratic voting blocs like minorities and students. Yet ALEC and others have no problem squashing these groups' voting rights--or the rights of elderly voters.  Routinely issued student IDs won't be accepted in some states--including my home state of Minnesota.  The elderly, non-drivers, and millions of others will have to get identification. This sounds like a simple process, but imagine an 80 year old grandmother who has never driven and uses a wheelchair going through the process of getting non-drivers ID. If her social security card is accepted identification for her benefits,  why isn't it good enough to identify her for voting?

For these reasons, I am introducing two bills today to curb voter suppression. The Same Day Registration Act would require states to provide for same day voter registration for a federal election. The Voter Access Protection Act would make sure election officials cannot require photo identification in order to cast a vote or register to vote.

Eligible voters deserve access to the polls. By passing these bills, we can ensure our nation lives up to its ideals and protect the most fundamental right in our democracy.

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