Skip to content

Graves-led push on Social Security benefits gains traction

Louisiana Republican, a top lieutenant to GOP speaker, has secured broad bipartisan support for costly proposal

Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., conducts a news conference after the House passed the debt ceiling package on Wednesday, May 31, 2023.
Rep. Garret Graves, R-La., conducts a news conference after the House passed the debt ceiling package on Wednesday, May 31, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

​Nearly two-thirds of the House has signed onto a bill that would boost Social Security for public-sector workers with government pensions who currently see limited retirement benefits.

The bill has gathered almost 290 co-sponsors, a threshold that could allow its backers to force a vote on the House floor and offer leverage as they work to get it through the chamber.

Under House rules, bills with at least 290 co-sponsors can be put on the “consensus calendar,” a process that allows rank-and-file members to force widely backed legislation to the floor if the committee of jurisdiction won’t take it up. It was referred to Ways and Means on Jan. 9, and the panel hasn’t scheduled a meeting to consider it.

“The fact that we’re one of the most co-sponsored bills in Congress right now … it sends a very strong message to the [Ways and Means] chair and the ranking member that this is something that’s going to have to be dealt with,” lead sponsor Garret Graves, R-La., said in an interview. “They’re not going to be able to ignore it because if they try to, we’re going to have other means to force action.”

Graves’ bill would aid more than 90,000 people in his home state of Louisiana, according to Congressional Research Service data from December.

[Government pensioners seek to elbow into Social Security talks]

He’s a notable voice for the issue in the GOP conference after helping broker a debt limit agreement on behalf of Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and building consensus among Republican members. Graves emphasizes those efforts are separate, though, and says he hasn’t tried to parlay that role into anything for the Social Security bill.

Broad support

Graves’ bill aims to boost Social Security payments for public workers with government pensions who also held other jobs covered by Social Security taxes, which means they’re entitled to both forms of retirement benefits.

The “windfall elimination provision” and “government pension offset” reduce Social Security payouts and spousal benefits for pensioned employees in an effort to avert unfairly high payouts.

Groups representing retired teachers, police officers and state and local employees say the reductions go too far and unfairly punish public servants.

Graves said public workers aren’t getting back what they pay into Social Security and that it’s a disincentive for going into critical fields like teaching and law enforcement. Graves’ bill would get rid of both provisions entirely.

The measure had 287 co-sponsors as of Wednesday afternoon, and lead sponsors of the legislation appeared confident about reaching 290.

The bill eventually racked up 305 co-sponsors in the last Congress under Democratic control of the House, but Ways and Means held a markup as a means of turning off the “consensus calendar” mechanism and slowing down momentum.

The panel’s leaders at that time, now-retired Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, and then-Chairman Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., tried to broker a deal on a scaled-back version but those talks ultimately fell through.

This year, co-sponsors have flocked to the bill more quickly, giving backers a year more lead time to spur action before this Congress ends.

“What’s really exciting about this Congress is that we have gotten much further, much faster,” the bill’s lead Democratic co-sponsor, Abigail Spanberger, said in an interview.

Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Va., poses in her office in the Cannon House Office Building on Wednesday, March 22, 2023. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Spanberger represents a Virginia district where, in addition to the local teachers, police and firefighters impacted in many districts, the issue also affects Capitol Police officers and retired federal workers.

Her constituents have historically leaned Republican, and Spanberger eked out narrow 2-point wins in her first two races before widening the gap in a redrawn 7th District last year that GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin carried the previous year. Still, Spanberger in 2022 underperformed President Joe Biden’s showing in the redrawn district two years earlier, and Democrats have included her in their Frontline program as a top priority seat to defend in 2024.

Among Graves’ co-sponsors are 89 Republicans, with high-profile backers including No. 4 House Republican Elise Stefanik of New York, Rules Chairman Tom Cole of Oklahoma and Oversight and Accountability Chairman James R. Comer of Kentucky. Fellow Kentuckian Thomas Massie, a Rules member and key voice for fiscal restraint, is also on the list.

Last year, the Congressional Budget Office estimated the bill would cost $183 billion over a decade.

Committee consideration

Graves and Spanberger both said they want to work with Ways and Means to move their bill through the panel, but that they could eventually try to force a floor vote if Ways and Means won’t act.

Graves said supporters are currently focused on working with Neal and new Ways and Means Chairman Jason Smith, R-Mo., and building more momentum. He said he’s met frequently with Smith and his top committee aide, and that the panel has been willing to engage on the issue.

Spokespersons for Smith and Neal didn’t immediately provide comment.

Next, Graves said he wants to see a Ways and Means hearing, listening session or meeting with stakeholders to advance consideration of the Social Security issue at the committee level — before formal consideration of legislation in a markup.

He said he plans to lay the groundwork so that a fix could make it into a larger package like one related to pensions or retirement. That would likely be an easier path to clearing the Senate than a stand-alone bill.

Spanberger said her goal is to pass her and Graves’ bill by the end of the year, which would allow a year to get it through the Senate before the 118th Congress ends and legislators have to start the process over again.

That timeline would “give us ample time to be able to make sure that every single senator hears form their constituents and every single senator has the chance to see what happened in the House, why it matters and why we’re asking them to take the same action,” she said.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, a member of the Finance Committee which has jurisdiction over the issue in his chamber, introduced a companion version in March. Among his 44 co-sponsors are five Republicans: original co-sponsors Susan Collins of Maine, Bill Cassidy of Louisiana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, along with Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma and the chamber’s other Louisianan, John Kennedy.

Still, efforts to get rid of the windfall elimination provision and government pension offset face perennial roadblocks. Multiple Ways and Means-led attempts to repeal the windfall elimination provision and replace it with a new formula have fallen short. Cost is typically a concern, particularly with the Social Security trust funds projected to run short of money in about a decade. 

Neal has a bill that would get rid of the windfall elimination provision and replace it with a new formula based on the portion of earnings covered by Social Security taxes during a worker’s career. Brady had his own version of a replacement formula before he retired last year that was less generous than Neal’s but still would have offered government retirees a benefit boost.

Graves said he believes there was “potentially some double dipping” before the provisions reducing benefits were enacted in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and wants a fair solution. He also said lawmakers must consider the Social Security trust funds’ impending budget shortfall.

Graves said there would be “a few technical issues” he’d be willing to revisit in his bill, but that he wouldn’t negotiate over them publicly.

Spanberger waved off the need for any changes to the bill, pointing to its broad support in the House.

Recent Stories

Capitol Ink | Legal benefit of marriage

‘We have half a piece of art’: Chris Murphy continues quest to reinstall Calder clouds

Florida’s Rick Scott enters race to be next Senate GOP leader

Louisiana abortion drug bill latest front in post-Dobbs fight

Capitol Lens | Grant-ing access

Democrats refer ‘big oil’ investigation to Justice Department