WASHINGTON - Diane Fleming first encountered Social Security when she was three years old. Now she's 70, and one of hundreds of people descending on Congress to make sure Social Security and Medicare stay alive and unchanged despite pressure for slashes from business, Republicans and budget-cutters.
"My father died when I was three. Because of Social Security (survivors) benefits, my Mom, my younger sister and I survived," even though they had to move in with her grandparents, Fleming told a packed hearing room on Capitol Hill.
"Now my mother is 91, and though she's in good health, there's no way she could live without Social Security."
The same thing goes for Fleming herself. A longtime Machinist who worked as a reservations agent and in ticketing for United Airlines for 39 years, Fleming was looking forward to a secure retirement with a good - and paid-for - pension.
Then, several years ago, United filed for bankruptcy protection. Its cash went to top executives. They used bankruptcy to dump United workers' pensions on the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., resulting in huge cuts in monthly pension payouts to veteran employees such as Fleming. It's a fate millions of workers have suffered as companies went belly-up, even before the Great Recession hit.
"I lost my full pension and had to take early retirement and survive on Social Security and a reduced pension," Fleming says. So she came to D.C. to ensure Social Security stays intact for her, her mother, and 56 million other current recipients.
Fleming now also works for the labor-backed Alliance for Retired Americans, one of a wide range of organizations that banded together on Nov. 15 to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid from the budget-cutting negotiations between Congress and the White House.
Those talks are aimed at avoiding the year-end "fiscal cliff" of budget cuts and tax hikes that, starting Jan. 1, could throw the nation back into recession. One recent estimate said first-year cuts and hikes alone would take $609 billion out of the economy.
Republicans who rule the House and hamstring the Senate seized upon the talks to demand cuts in what they call "entitlements"-the programs people depend on.
In response, the pro-program groups, which also include the AFL-CIO, the Service Employees and the National Organization for Women, sent their members around Congress to lobby lawmakers to oppose any cuts. They got an enthusiastic reception from congressional Democrats, including those who spoke at the Nov. 15 event, organized by strongly pro-worker Sen. Bernie Sanders, Ind.-Vt.
And the lawmakers organized their own coalition to protect Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, Sanders told the crowd.
"You're going to find a lot of well-paid lobbyists here in the halls" of Congress who earn six or seven figures to represent millionaires and billionaires," the fiery Sanders declared. "So it's delightful to welcome you, representing the middle class."
The organizations and individuals lobbying from the outside, and the coalition talking to their colleagues on the inside, make the point that Social Security contributed "not one penny" to the government's tide of red ink, as one speaker said. Its trust funds, Sanders said, have enough money "to pay 100% of benefits" through 2040. That $2.7 trillion surplus includes federal IOUs to Social Security, however.
The Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare and the health care law, added eight years - to 2024 -- to the life of the Medicare trust fund, he said.
But there's a way to ensure Social Security survives for 75 years, Sanders declared: Remove the current cap, $106,800, on the amount of individual earnings subject to Social Security payroll taxes. That would force the rich to "pay their fair share" for the nation's retirement system.
Those twin goals of protecting the retirement programs from the budget cutters and shoring them up for future recipients - including the young - prompted Fleming and her colleagues to walk the halls of the House and Senate. But one lawmaker told them their work couldn't stop there.
"I don't know everyone in your church, your synagogue, your mosque," said Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn. "You do" and must go back home and convince others to join the cause in grass-roots lobbying. "This will take a 'big lift' from all of us. We have to build a coalition in size like those that got Social Security and Medicare in the first place."
Fleming is ready to do so. So were the others in the jam-packed hearing room.
"When you get angry about something, do something about it!" she declared. "They're trying to hold us down with fear and doubt," she said about the coalition that wants to cut Social Security and Medicare while claiming to "save Social Security" from future red ink. "Let's have none of that. Let's rage."