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White House Call to Action!

Posted: December 4, 2012

Today I was at a very high-level briefing about the potential impact of the fiscal cliff on seniors, thanks to a very gracious invitation because of the White House forum sponsored by the Association of Jewish Aging Services (AJAS) in October.  Don Shulman, AJAS executive director, and I sat together and learned about the Administration’s approach and how we can support them.  Due to Don’s leadership in getting AJAS on the national advocacy map, we have a great vehicle for ongoing policy engagement.

The briefing began with Valerie Jarrett (widely thought of as President Obama’s closest adviser) and Cecilia Munoz, the Director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, laying the framework.  Last year’s legislation to extend the debt ceiling which puts in place automatic spending cuts and taxes if there is not an affirmative deal to provide a more nuanced solution. Without a deal, “sequestration” occurs which will result in across-the-board spending cuts of 8.2%--very dramatic—to achieve $4 trillion in debt reduction. 

The President won a decisive election victory and has a profound commitment to resolving this situation without placing the burden on the backs of seniors, they assured us.  Rather than discuss “entitlements” such as Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, the Administration refers to these crucial programs as “earned protections” and believes the American people want him to preserve, protect and strengthen these guarantees—not renege on them. [Social Security is solvent at the moment and not on the table in any of these current deficit discussions.]

The President will insist on a balanced and fair program of deficit reduction.  He already submitted a budget that yields $1 trillion in spending cuts.  The President is advocating not extending tax cuts on the top 2% of earners—those earning over $250,000/year—which will yield another $1 trillion.  He advocates ending tax loopholes which will yield another $0.6 trillion.  [Note: the nonprofits in the room questioned the potential impact of removing exemptions on charitable giving—the Administration is planning to take the deduction down from 28% to 20% and acknowledge this could have some consequences but given the choices, may be the least harmful. They are treating this particular deduction with more TLC than the other ones, in recognition of its role in operations for nonprofiits such as ours.]

The first step the President has taken is to submit a bill to Congress that protects middle class taxpayers by extending the tax rate reductions from several years ago for another year.   They expect this to also have a very positive effect on the economy—both stimulating spending and encouraging the markets.

Then Jason Furman, Principal Deputy Director of the National Economic Council, spent a long time taking us through various scenarios and went into some detail about the fiscal cliff threat and the President’s plans.  For example, he explained that the fiscal cliff is especially threatening to programs in 2013, since it would take effect in January 2013 but requires cuts to the entire fiscal year, which began on October 1, 2012—thus they would need to find these 8.2% cuts in only 9 months of the year.  An economist, he articulated that income inequality has been increasing dramatically over the past several decades, and the Affordable Care Act is a major step in reversing that trend.  He pointed out that with the $1 trillion in spending cuts already planned by the President, our domestic spending will be at its lowest share of the economy since Eisenhower.

Most importantly, Mr. Furman says the President is committed to avoiding this fiscal cliff, but not at the expense of vulnerable populations.  He will not sign a bill that keeps tax rates for the top earners at their current rates.  He plans to use the political capital he gained in the election to protect Medicare and insist on fair tax burdens for high income households.

He summarized the Administration plans: (1) extend middle class tax cuts now; (2) negotiate a “grand bargain” to solve the deficit with a fair, balanced program by the end of 2012; (3) move on to other important national issues at the start of 2013 by having this behind us. 

I asked him if there was room to explore, post-cliff, the relationship between investments in one government silo (HUD) and savings in another (Medicaid) and I shared JCHE’s findings there.  He replied that they really believe in that approach and wanted to explore it more in the near future.

We then had a panel from advocacy organizations so we could learn about the excellent efforts going on across the country to support the President’s plan.  These are multi-faceted: call-in days to Congress, op-ed pieces and letters to the editors of local papers, candle-light vigils to emphasize the vulnerability of seniors, position papers which calculate the impact of cuts in human terms and more.  Over the next few days, I’ll be figuring out the best ways for JCHE to fit into these crucial efforts.

Finally, Jon Carson, Director of the White House’s Office Public Engagement, gave the charge.  The President is deeply committed to protecting the services and programs for seniors.  We need to support him and be very vocal about that support.  He summed it up by saying “everything is at stake” for the country’s future—sequestration would be a disaster for seniors, for the economy and for the country.  We can help by articulating—loudly, locally and frequently—what the federal government’s dollars do for our constituents. He believes many people think home-delivered meals, Medicare and housing supports come from local government or charities—we need to be clear about the positive role of federal dollars in ways people can understand.

And we must articulate this not simply as we are trying to avoid budget or even program cuts.  Rather, it’s a values proposition—there is a choice before us now.  We can ask the wealthy to pay their fair share OR we can cut critical supports to our most vulnerable populations.  We can illustrate for our constituents, friends, supporters and ultimately our Congressman that we understand that a rich people’s tax cut is not the better choice than our programs.

December 3, 2012

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