The fight between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders over Social Security, explained

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and his campaign have attacked former Vice President Joe Biden over his record on Social Security stretching back to the 1980s.

Biden counter-attacked at an Iowa campaign event, accusing the Sanders campaign of publishing a “doctored” video of him. The video wasn’t altered, but it didn’t tell the full story about Biden’s comments in 2018 related to former GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan and Social Security.

Biden and Sanders released dueling digital ads about Social Security about two weeks before the Iowa caucus. Sanders tweeted that Biden “fought for decades to cut Social Security,” while Biden said in his ad that he had “repeatedly voted to save Social Security.”

Here’s the bottom line: Biden and Sanders each highlight the part of Biden’s 40-year record that’s favorable to their own arguments. Sanders emphasizes Biden’s statements decades ago that show a willingness to slow spending in an effort to reduce the federal deficit. Biden emphasizes his current position in favor of protecting or expanding benefits.

Related story: Social Security: A critical program with an uncertain future

Biden’s record of statements on Social Security

Sanders said told CNN  on Jan. 6 that “Joe Biden has been on the floor of the Senate talking about the need to cut Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid.”

During the 1980s and 1990s, Biden spoke in favor of freezes to Social Security as part of an effort to reign in all spending to reduce the deficit.

“The only way that Congress will ever be able to come to grips with deficits is by dealing with all federal programs as a package,” Biden said in 1984.

In 1984, Biden co-sponsored a proposal with two GOP senators to broadly freeze spending. The proposal would have meant no cost-of-living adjustments for one year, but it was defeated.

In 1995, Biden voted in favor of an amendment to exclude reducing Social Security benefits in any legislation to implement a balanced budget amendment. But Biden ultimately supported the balanced budget amendment when its final form didn’t include the exemption. Sanders said the balanced budget amendment would lead to “the destruction of the Social Security system as we know it.”

Sanders’ digital ad uses audio of Biden’s comments in 1995 calling for a broad freeze on spending, including Social Security. The context was Biden calling for a balanced budget amendment.

“When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well,” Biden said at the time. “I meant Medicare and Medicaid. I meant veterans benefits. I meant every single solitary thing in the government. And I not only tried it once, I tried it twice, I tried it a third time, and I tried it a fourth time.”

In 2007, NBC’s Tim Russert asked Biden if he would consider making changes to the age of eligibility and cost of living increases due to projections about a large growth in the number of recipients. Biden replied, “Absolutely.”

He acknowledged the political risk:

“The political advisers say to me is, ‘Whoa, don’t touch that third (rail)’ — look, the American people aren’t stupid. It’s a real simple proposition. … Social Security’s not the hard one to solve. Medicare, that is the gorilla in the room, and you’ve got to put all of it on the table.”

But as vice president, Biden generally changed his focus to protecting Social Security — and that’s what he emphasizes in his digital ad.

The ad includes Biden’s statement during the 2012 vice presidential debate with Ryan when he said: “We will be no part of a voucher program or the privatization of Social Security.”

Biden’s ad also states that the Obama-Biden administration fought privatization. Obama kept his promise to avoid privatization, which wasn’t a heavy lift since it was maintaining the status quo.

In 2012, Biden promised voters in Virginia: “I guarantee you, flat guarantee you, there will be no changes in Social Security. I flat guarantee you.” 

Biden’s ad omits that in 2014 the Obama administration proposed a way to change how Social Security cost-of-living increases were calculated known as chained CPI. The method would have reduced benefits by 1 to 2 percent over the course of the average retirement, according to the left-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities. Sanders, who had called the method  “an economic, moral disaster”, was among the Democrats who pushed back. Obama dropped the idea.

During his current campaign, Biden called for “urgently needed action to make the program solvent and prevent cuts to American retirees.”

Biden would increase the minimum benefit for lifelong workers and make payments for the oldest people more generous. To shore up Social Security’s finances, he would raise taxes on upper income households, although his plans doesn’t say by how much.

“We should be increasing, not decreasing, Social Security,” Biden said at an AARP Iowa forum in July. 

Sanders has also called for expanding Social Security.

What Biden said in 2018 about Paul Ryan

The Sanders campaign in a January newsletter said, “In 2018, Biden lauded Paul Ryan for proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare.” In a fact-check that specifically examined  whether Biden lauded Ryan, we rated that claim False. The article, however, did not entail an examination of  Biden’s complete history on Social Security.

Feuding between the Biden and Sanders camps about Biden’s record over Social Security continued. On Jan. 18, Biden brought up the Sanders campaign attack at an event in Iowa. 

“There’s a little doctored video going around, put out by one of Bernie’s people…saying that I agreed with Paul Ryan, the former vice presidential candidate, about wanting to privatize Social Security.” Biden was talking about a 20-second video clip from the 2018 event tweeted by Sanders advisor Warren Gunnels.

Biden then referenced PolitiFact, and called the video “doctored” and “a fake.” We didn’t declare the video fake or doctored, though it was taken out of context and misrepresented Biden’s positions.  

The video ignored the complete passage which showed that Biden wanted Social Security and Medicare protected.

“Paul Ryan was correct when he did the tax code. What’s the first thing he decided we had to go after?” Biden said, with a slight smirk. Biden then leaned into the microphone and said in a deep menacing voice: “Social Security and Medicare.” (If you listen to the audio, Biden appears to be mocking Ryan.)

Biden continued: “Now, we need to do something about Social Security and Medicare.” He then sarcastically whispered: “That’s the only way you can find room to pay for it.” 

The Sanders campaign omits what Biden said next (our emphasis is in bold):

“Now, I don’t know a whole lot of people in the top one-tenth of 1 percent or the top 1 percent who are relying on Social Security when they retire. I don’t know a lot of them. Maybe you guys do. So we need a pro-growth, progressive tax code that treats workers as job creators, as well, not just investors; that gets rid of unprotective loopholes like stepped-up basis; and it raises enough revenue to make sure that the Social Security and Medicare can stay, it still needs adjustments, but can stay; and pay for the things we all acknowledge will grow the country.”

Some PolitiFact readers interpreted Biden’s comment about the programs needing “adjustments” to mean a cut, but that’s up for debate. 

G. William Hoagland, senior vice president at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said “adjustments” generally can be interpreted many different ways. It could mean a reduction in the rate of growth, actual cuts in what benefits would have been under current law, or increases in benefits. 

Eugene Steuerle, an expert at the Tax Policy Center, said “adjustments” usually mean tax increases or cuts in the rate of growth in benefits to restore trust fund balance. 

“Someone must pay for spending,” Steuerle said. “That means either tax cuts or spending increases today or tomorrow to pay for deficits, which are rising perpetually faster than our income and almost no matter what the rate of economic growth.”

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