Who will do more to protect Social Security, Brian Schatz 0r Colleen Hanabusa?

Having examined their records and positions, my conclusion is that both candidates for Hawaii’s U.S. Senate seat care deeply about preserving this core federal entitlement.

It would be political suicide for a politician in the bluest state in the nation — one with a large and growing senior population, and with the highest costs of living in the nation — to campaign on a platform to trim a kupuna safety net.

It’s also difficult to imagine Hanabusa ever doing something that would hurt her elderly mother, June, or Schatz intentionally harming his in-laws, George and Ping Kwok. Both candidates have evoked their loved ones in their campaigns.

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and Sen. Brian Schatz shake hands at the end of their televised debate on KITV.

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa and Sen. Brian Schatz shake hands at the end of their televised debate on KITV, July 7, 2014.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Yet, in the first three debates between the leading Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate, Schatz has questioned Hanabusa’s commitment to Social Security by pointing to a vote Hanabusa made last year. Hanabusa has countered that Schatz voted to extend cuts to Medicare.

They’ve also sparred over these issues in campaign literature sent to their supporters.

Schatz brought the Social Security matter up July 1 in Lihue, Kauai, and July 2 in Hilo on the Big Island. Most pointedly, he raised it in the Civil Beat-KITV debate July 7 for viewers across the state to see:

Schatz to Hanabusa: Colleen, in 2013 you voted to require the use of the Simpson-Bowles budget plan. Senior citizens and labor groups criticized this because it would do the following: cut social security benefits and raise the retirement age, cut medicare benefits by increasing copays for seniors, give the rich tax breaks and eliminate the mortgage interest deduction. Do you regret this vote or do you stand by it?

Hanabusa to Schatz: You know, Brian, you again misstate what I did and what a vote is. You said — I think it was on the Big Island — that I voted for H.R. 444, which I assume is what this is supposed to reference to, and I voted no. … I have stood by Social Security and I stand by my strong position on Social Security and the preservation of the benefits for our seniors, unlike you who voted to extend the cuts to Medicare for an additional two years. I did not vote (for) that because I know what it means to our kupuna. At least, Brian, understand what the bills are and look at them carefully before you make these kinds of accusations. That is not what that vote was about.

Schatz to Hanabusa: Well, I can’t wait for the fact checkers to get after this one.

“Colleen, in 2013 you voted to require the use of the Simpson-Bowles budget plan.” — U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz

Schatz proceeded to read from a Feb. 5, 2013, letter from the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare urging U.S. representatives like Hanabusa to vote against an amendment to H.R. 444.

“This is a bad vote, Colleen,” Schatz concluded. “I urge you to oppose an amendment to H.R. 444, Require a PLAN Act — and you voted for that — because it would include proposals that would cut Social Security by raising the retirement age to 69, cut Social Security by reducing the cost of living adjustments, cut Social Security by altering the benefit formula and cut Medicare by increasing cost sharing for seniors.”

What Is the Simpson-Bowles Amendment?

Some viewers of the debates might have come away from that exchange with five questions in mind:

  • What is H.R. 444?
  • What is the Simpson-Bowles amendment?
  • Did Hanabusa really vote against Social Security?
  • Did Schatz really vote to extend Medicare cuts for two years?
  • Did Schatz understand the bills?

Let’s answer those questions, and then let’s consider why the issue of legislative votes is important in political campaigns — but also often complicated and sometimes potentially very misleading.

House Resolution 444 — the “Require Presidential Leadership and No Deficit Act” or the “Require a PLAN Act” — was introduced by House Republicans in 2013. If President Barack Obama’s fiscal year 2014 budget did not achieve financial balance in a 10-year window, the president would be required to submit a supplemental budget that identified a fiscal year in which the balance would be achieved.

H.R. 444, which was not about Social Security, passed in a 253-167 vote pretty much along party lines. Hanabusa voted “no” on H.R. 444, just as she said. So did top House Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer. (Hawaii’s other congresswoman, Tulsi Gabbard, did not vote.)

Hanabusa campaign event

Rep. Colleen Hanabusa with her mother, June, at right, Bishop Museum, July 2013.

Chad Blair/Civil Beat

The Simpson-Bowles amendment to H.R. 444 was introduced by Republican Kurt Schrader of Oregon. It called for adding language to H.R. 444 “stating that Simpson-Bowles created a balanced package of revenue and spending reforms which should form the basis for meeting the requirements of the bill.”

The amendment failed on a 348-75 vote, with 54 Democrats voting in favor of its passage. Hanabusa voted for the amendment, just as Schatz said, but so did Pelosi and Hoyer. (Gabbard did not vote.)

Here’s where things get a little complicated.

Did Hanabusa Really Vote to Cut Social Security?

Technically, what’s called the “Simpson-Bowles amendment” is also called the Schrader amendment or the Schrader-Wolf-Cooper-Gibson Amendment, named for the two Democrats and two Republicans that introduced it. Schrader’s official website uses all three names.

The Simpson-Bowles commission — named for former White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles (under Bill Clinton) and former Republican Sen. Alan K. Simpson (a colleague of fellow Wyoming native Dick Cheney) — is the shorthand for the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. The bipartisan commission was tasked in 2010 with “identifying policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run.”

“You know, Brian, you again misstate what I did and what a vote is.” — U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa

That it did, and its recommendations were unpalatable to many people in both parties. Among many things, the report called for reducing government spending through significant changes to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid that might not sit well with on folks who depend on these programs.

So, by voting for the amendment on H.R. 444, did Hanabusa really vote to cut Social Security? It depends on who you ask.

Schatz clearly believes so. So does the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, which in its letter to representatives urging a “no” vote on the amendment states that the Simpson-Bowles plan relies “far too heavily on benefit cuts — to both Social Security and Medicare — which would hurt millions of Americans.”

But here is how The Hill reported on the Schrader proposal: “The amendment is a bipartisan proposal that recommends Obama should use the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan as a basis for getting to a balanced budget.”

Schrader’s website, meanwhile, says his amendment called for using the “Simpson-Bowles framework as a guide in drafting his budget.” Rep. Jim Cooper, the Tennessee Democrat who co-introduced the amendment, said, “Most budget experts agree that Simpson-Bowles, or something like it, is where we’ll eventually end up. It should be the foundation for any serious plan to reduce our debt in a balanced way.”

Schatz a father-in-law

Sen. Brian Schatz with his father-in-law, George Kwok.

Schatz for Senate

And Simpson and Bowles themselves welcomed the amendment, stating, “The amendment echoes the findings of our report that addressing our fiscal challenges will require a bipartisan plan to reform spending programs and the tax code in order to stabilize and reduce the debt as a share of the nation’s economy. No plan is perfect, including ours, but it can serve as the starting point for the discussion necessary to produce an agreement that is equally bold and comprehensive and that can get the broad bipartisan support needed to ensure enactment.”

Starting point. Basis. Guide. Proposals. Foundation. Those words seem to fall short of a mandate requiring the president to adopt all of the Simpson-Bowles commission recommendations.

Did Schatz understand the amendment to H.R. 444?  Did he mislead viewers in the three debates regarding Hanabusa’s position on Social Security for political gain? We’ll leave that to our readers (and the voters) to decide.

But, on balance, the Schrader amendment was arguably a bipartisan effort to get the president and Congress to start making tough decisions on fiscal matters — but not to actually adopt all of the Simpson-Bowles plan.

And, though Schatz did tell debate audiences that the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare has endorsed him, he did not say that it has also issued fundraising appeals on behalf of the senator.

In two of the mailers, the national seniors’ group urges residents to contact Hanabusa and tell her not to privatize or undermine the entitlement programs,” the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. “In the third, it urges residents to contact Schatz in support of a bill the senator has co-sponsored to expand Social Security benefits.”

Another group that is throwing money Schatz’s way is the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which ranks protecting Social Security as a top priority.

Did Schatz Really Vote to Extend Medicare Cuts?

The Hanabusa campaign has also used entitlements to draw distinctions between Hanabusa and Schatz.

Peter Boylan, Hanabusa’s communications director, warned supporters in an email last month:

A Mainland special interest group backing Brian Schatz is trying to raise money in Hawaii by sending letters to our seniors insinuating that Colleen may be open to privatizing Social Security. …

It is a sad day in Hawaii when a Mainland group supporting Brian Schatz is scaring our seniors while asking for their money. Colleen is on the right side of this issue and always has been.

But it could be said that Hanabusa has misled voters on entitlements, too, and used it to attract support.

Schatz, Hirono and Gabbard voted for the budget deal. Hanabusa voted against it.

Did Schatz vote to extend cuts to Medicare for two more years, as she says? Yes, he did. But, just as Schatz did not attempt to fully explain what Simpson-Bowles and the Schrader amendment were about, neither did Hanabusa attempt to fully explain the Medicare vote, which was part of much larger legislation.

That vote, in December, was on “a bipartisan budget deal that could avert a possible government shutdown and prevent further economic damage from across-the board budget cuts resulting from sequestration.” That’s according to a press release from Hanabusa’s own office in which she praised the deal crafted by House Republican Paul Ryan and Senate Democrat Patty Murray.

But she ultimately voted against the budget deal in the House. So did Hoyer and Schrader — and so did Tea Party darling Michele Bachmann. Gabbard voted for the deal, calling it “a modest step in the right direction” but “far from perfect.”

Hanabusa voted “no” primarily for these reasons: “After reviewing the bill, I could not support it because it balances the budget on the backs of our kupuna, military retirees, federal employees, and families who cannot find work.”

Schatz voted for the budget deal, saying, “In a divided government, the people expect responsible leaders to find ways to govern and work together.” So did Hawaii’s other senator, Mazie Hirono. GOP Sens. Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul, however, voted no — just like Hanabusa did.

Obama signed the budget deal into law.

Candidates have every right to call attention to their opponent’s record. It can be very difficult to succinctly explain things in live debates with limited time. And politics is a rough and tumble business.

What’s clear is that both Schatz and Hanabusa have used narrow interpretations of votes to undermine their opponent.

Hanabusa and Schatz are competing in a Democratic primary that will bring out the base. In a race where there are few real policy differences, entitlements have been elevated to a wedge issue.

(To read what the candidates officially have to say about entitlements on their campaign websites, click her for Hanabusa and click here for Schatz.)

But addressing Social Security and Medicare, controlling government expenditures, crafting bipartisan solutions and talking frankly to the American people are critical to the nation’s fiscal stability. Too often, the issues can be distorted for short-term benefit to campaigns — e.g., “You are scaring kupuna!” — at the longterm expense of making very difficult decisions about very complicated issues.

The Simpson-Bowles amendment and the budget vote come up in Tuesday’s Senate debate sponsored by AARP Hawaii and KHON. There is still time in the final debate between the candidates, set for Thursday with Hawaii News Now and the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

And there remains the possibility of future campaign mailers, emails and advertisements.


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