Recap: Debate with Hawaii’s Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate

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Sen. Brian Schatz and Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, the Democratic candidates for U.S. Senate, participated in a live debate Tuesday hosted by KHON2 and AARP.

The debate aired on KHON2 and on KHON2.com’s live stream.

The following is a recap of what happened, posted in a live blog format beginning with the most recent posts and ending with the oldest.



Viewer Question: The Interior Department is looking at recognizing Native Hawaiians as a federally recognized tribe. Do you favor this process? - Tracy, Makakilo

Hanabusa: This is an issue of justice and it is an issue of self-determination. But it is something that has been long overdue in terms of how the federal government will re-establish a nation-to-nation relationship with the Native Hawaiian community. I do not believe that the intent is that Native Hawaiian community will be treated as a tribe and it is unfortunate, because I believe that that has been something that people have not understood. What we have now is people have contributed their comment, the Department of Interior must listen to what they said, and they must come back and they must say how each part of that question is going to be answered. What does it mean to re-establish? What is nation-to-nation relationship and who is the Native Hawaiian community? It is far from over and I just hope that people continue to participate and have and share their input in this. It’s been too long overdue.

Follow-up question: Do you think the recognition, whatever it is called, should come through this federally initiated process or through another state- or OHA-initiated process?

Hanabusa: There are three ways you can get federal recognition. First, I believe there should be federal recognition. One is through Congress, which we know we haven’t been able to do. The other is through the administrative process, which is this. And the third is through the judicial process. Sometimes I wonder whether the state of Hawaii should take the step, that would require a governor who’s actually willing to do it, to sue for what is it mean to be on equal footing, which is the language that we found when we became the state of Hawaii. But right now, this is our best shot with President Obama.

Schatz: Colleen and I agree about this. There is a total roadblock in the United States Congress. I’ve been able to persuade exactly one United States senator to support Native Hawaiian recognition and that’s not enough. We have to get to 60 in the Senate and we are nowhere near a majority in the House. That leaves us most likely with the administrative process and in President Obama we have somebody who doesn’t just understand Hawaii, but he understands Hawaiians. He doesn’t need a briefing paper. He worked with Daniel Akaka on the Senate floor when Senator Akaka was pushing for his legislation. So we have a real opportunity with Esther Kiaaina and with an administration that is supportive of the cause of Native Hawaiian recognition to move forward. Colleen’s also right about this: What we are moving forward with is not trying to establish a tribal relationship, but we are trying to use the existing statute to recognize that there ought to be a government-to-government relationship between Native Hawaiians and the federal government. I’m happy that John Waihee is actually in the studio tonight. He’s a good friend of mine, he’s endorsed my candidacy, and I’ve worked very closely with him on these issues. He’s a good friend and he’s been very stressed out over the last six weeks or so, but he moves forward and he’s the right person to lead us through these processes.


Viewer Question: Are you in favor of raising the federal tax on gasoline to sustain the Federal Highway Fund which is projected to run out of money in August? - Randall, Hawaii Kai


Hanabusa to Schatz: Your mentor Governor Abercrombie says I’m too old to be a United States senator. In an interview with Washington Post, he said Brian Schatz is 41 and Colleen isn’t. Age has become an issue in this campaign. Can you tell me how old is too old to be a U.S. Senator?

Schatz: Age is not an issue to me. Age is not something I’m focusing on. What I’m focusing on with total commitment is more effective at getting things done for the state of Hawaii. I want voters to have the opportunity to compare our records. We are different in terms of style, accomplishments, and I think that’s where this debate ought to take place. I’m proud of my record as United States senator. I’ve been able to get things done for the state of Hawaii. Age is not an issue for me, you’ve brought it up a couple of times, but I certainly haven’t brought it up.

Hanabusa: I don’t think that’s true. Your own little memo that you sent around says that at 40 years old, Schatz has the promise of many years in the United States senate, accumulating all-important seniority for the state of Hawaii. That’s one of the issues that you raise in your own propaganda that you send out. So you mention people like Elizabeth Warren, who’s 65, 66 years old and you look at the senators who have served Hawaii. They’ve all been primarily in their 60s with the exception of Senator Inouye. I’m glad you think that it isn’t because I will tell you I stand by my record in comparison to yours.

Schatz: Let me just say I wasn’t aware of that language and I don’t like it and I don’t approve of it and I think it was written last year but I certainly want to make it clear I don’t think age should be an issue in this race.

Hanabusa: Thank you, Brian, and you can retract that and some other things that were put in this memo.

Schatz to Hanabusa: Colleen, while you were serving as the state Senate president, you supported a 36 percent pay raise for yourself and members of the legislature. At the same time, teachers, government employees and private businesses were experiencing cuts and layoffs, and our public school students and their families were suffering through Furlough Fridays. What do you have to say to the people of Hawaii regarding your choices?

Hanabusa: This is an issue that came out in the 2010 and 2012 election by people like Karl Rove and Charles Djou and the Republican party and I’m surprised that you raised it because you were in the legislature when we established that salary commission that set it. They set that and you voted for it. And when you became Lieutenant Governor, Brian, you took that same pay raise. We had cut it by five percent, because when it takes effect, that’s how the constitution works, but you took that pay raise. You took exactly the same amount. You earn more because of the Lieutenant Governor’s position, but not withstanding, you took the same thing so I’m just wondering, the Abercrombie/Schatz administration said the economy was bad and we had to do these terrible cuts on our seniors and those who had pensions, so why did you take the same thing that was done by the same salary commission and simply take the five percent that everyone else took?

Schatz: I just want to be clear, this is not a partisan issue and it may be the case that Karl Rove mentioned it in the last election, but he mentioned it in the last election because it concerns people of all political stripes to take a 36 percent pay raise. And it’s true I voted for the legislative salary commission but as you know, Colleen, you had the authority to pass a legislative resolution of disapproval and you did not. And then you made a campaign ad pretending that you had actually taken a five percent clawback, but it was five percent off of 36 percent. I didn’t take a 36 percent pay raise. I was on the record saying it was a mistake.

Hanabusa: But you still took the money and proposed to tax the seniors’ benefits that the AARP has taken a position against. So I don’t know, it sounds hypocritical to me.

Schatz: I think her record stands on its own here. She not only supported the 36 percent pay raise while there were Furlough Fridays, but she was actually a lead advocate for trying to explain away the problem of cutting government salaries across the board, but not for herself.


Question: The median single family home price on Oahu is a record $700,000 and the UH Economic Research Organization projects a median price reaching $775,000 in 2015. Specifically, what should the federal government do to make housing more affordable? Would you propose any legislation to help Hawaii residents purchase a home?


Question: Congressional gridlock affects Hawaii in profound ways — witness the impact of the federal government shutdown last October. As a member of Congress, is it more important to you to stand up for your Democratic principles or to work to forge consensus in a deeply divided government? Is there a line that you won’t cross?

Schatz: There are lines that I won’t cross — when it comes to Social Security, when it comes to clean energy, when it comes to women’s rights, when it comes to civil rights. I won’t cross those lines because I believe those in my core. However, part of being an effective senator is to be able to work with people across the country and across the aisle. My partners in legislation last year in terms of the two pieces of legislation I was able to pass were Jim Inhofe and Johnny Isakson. These are two of the most rock-ribbed conservative members of the United States Senate that you will ever find. We don’t agree on much. Jim Inhofe is a person who literally wrote a book on how he thought a global climate change was a hoax so I didn’t expect for him to be my dance partner on the other side of the aisle. But that’s how you have to work. You have to find those opportunities for compromise, for collaboration, but you also have to draw a line in the sand when it comes to your core values.

Hanabusa: One of the great lessons that I’ve had is being a minority within a minority. That’s the best lesson you can have especially when you go from the president of the Senate, when you determine what’s the agenda, to a position where you have to deal with the minority in order to get anything done. And I think my record speaks for itself. However, in terms of what line I would never cross, I would never cross balancing any budget on the backs of our kupuna. Whether that’s Social Security or taxing pensions, which we’ve already seen happen in the state, where the governor said when he was asked how’s he going to handle AARP, he said well I’ll just roll over them. Now this is a policy that’s part of the Abercrombie/Schatz administration. We don’t cut on the basis of seniors. We don’t tax them. We don’t take away their Part B reimbursements for those state and federal employees who have the right to rely on that. You do not do those things, and those are the things that are lying in the sand for me.


Question: At $5.5 billion the Honolulu rail project is the most expensive capital improvement project in the state’s history. Many residents fear total costs will surpass that. Would you support funding for the rail project above and beyond what Congress has already promised?

Hanabusa: I’m probably the only member of Congress who knows what it’s like to commute from the west side. I did it throughout all of my life. Yes, I would support the rail project being completed, and if it means we have to ask for additional federal funds, we have to ask for additional federal funds. But in addition to that, let us also be aware that federal funds is just one component of it. I think the people of the state of Hawaii are going to weigh in because the other way of funding the rail project was the extra 0.5 percent of the GET. So I think this is going to be a situation where we’re going to let the people decide. When the legislature is asked again as to whether they’re going to extend that GET, which is for 15 years now, so there will be a process and we’ll do what the people of the state of Hawaii want. And right now I have all indications that they would want it completed so I will support it.

Schatz: I don’t think we should extend the GET and I don’t think we should talk about additional federal funding. There is a full funding grant agreement and as a member of the transportation committee under the commerce committee in the Senate, I work with the entire delegation to make sure that funding continues. But HART has to do their job within the current budget and so I don’t think it’s wise for us to talk about new revenue streams, either federal appropriations, federal grants, or new tax revenue. They’ve got to finish the job. The other thing I’d like to say about rail is that for those who are opposed to rail and for those who were in favor of rail, now the question is not so much where you were before, but how do we do this thing right? How do we make sure that we build communities rather than run them over? How do we facilitate affordable housing? How do we protect the environment and cultural sites? The question now is how do we do it right and make sure we don’t spend a penny more than is absolutely necessary.


Question: We’re all for protecting the middle class, but what specifically do you have in mind to help Hawaii’s families and can you quantify the impact your proposal would have on a family of four?

Schatz: First of all, I think we really need to focus more on college affordability. The president was able to sign legislation that reduces the student loan interest rate for future borrowers from about 6.8 percent to 3.8 percent. But we need to do more. We spend about $140 billion a year on college subsidies, but the net price for many people is getting totally out of control. One of the main culprits is these online degree granting institutions. There is a college, they actually bring down more than a billion dollars in federal funds and their graduation rate is three percent. We are spending $32 billion a year out of that $130, $140 billion on college subsidies, but a lot of that money is going to these for-profit online degree granting institutions and we need to crack down on them.

Hanabusa: I also supported that bill on the college affordability that Brian talked about, but we should be honest about it. All that bill did was kick the can down the road. It’s already up another percentage point July 1 of this year and it’s expected to go to 6.8 percent by the year 2017. What we need to do for the middle class families is really they have to feel that there is a sense of confidence in what we’re doing. I think the way we can do that is by ensuring them better and good jobs. That’s why I am such an advocate of the pivot to Asia Pacific as the president talks about it. I believe Hawaii is the center. I also believe that when you look at what role we will play in the Pacific, especially in research and development, whether that’s in energy or other areas, you can see that these are the jobs that we need. One way is to of course keep Pearl Harbor very sustained and you have 5,000 employees there, and a whole new generation to come in. We need to have them trained to take those jobs.

Follow-up question: There was a story recently that Hickam is reducing employees. The Secretary of Defense has already announced that he has plans to downsize the military. What kind of impact do you think that will have on the economy here in Hawaii?

Hanabusa: It will have a major impact. That’s one of the reasons I could not support the bipartisan budget act, because what it did was it set the spending, and by setting the spending, you had to make these various choices. Know that what it meant for Hawaii, for example, is we were expected to have $500 million worth of construction jobs. It went down to $211 (million). We lost $290 million by that one act. We can’t do that so we need to be aware of how votes affect the outcome of the jobs available.

Schatz: Let’s distinguish between the bipartisan budget agreement and the 2015 proposed administration budget and the appropriations measure. The appropriations measure in ’13 and ’14 actually saw around 13 percent increase in MILCON (military construction). We actually saw an increase in federal spending in the current appropriations process. Colleen’s right. In the 2015 cycle, not just in Hawaii but across the country, we’re going to see Draconian cuts, but we did fix ’13 and ’14 and now we have to go back and get after it and fix the 2015 budget structure.


Viewer question: Hawaii has a long tradition of re-electing incumbents in Congress. What is your sense of the significance of this election in terms of your age and your ability to establish seniority in the Senate? - Rob, Kailua

Hanabusa: This election is very important to the people and I think it’s because most people realize that this is the election that the people of Hawaii will have the first opportunity to have a say as to who will fill the remaining term of Senator Inouye. That’s what this is. It is your opportunity to vote. It is not just one vote by the governor of the state of Hawaii. It is your opportunity. Seniority is really something that is determined by you the voter as well. No one has a right to think that they’re invested in a particular seat. You are the ones who make the decision for us to whether we will continue to serve you. That’s why seniority is that. Now, the service that we have, it isn’t just simply because we’re there. You undercut the great work of people like Senator Inouye and Senator Ikaka. It wasn’t because they were there a long time. It is because they were extraordinary lawmakers.

Schatz: I don’t think age has any place in this discussion or this election. What I’m focusing on is who’s more effective in getting things done for the state of Hawaii. I’ve been able to build the relationships that have put me in a unique position to help Hawaii as the tourism committee chair and the water and power committee chair. I’ve been effective in the appropriations process and I’ve tried very hard to make sure that I represent Hawaii’s values and priorities in terms of the legislation that I introduce. I’ve been able to pass a couple of pieces of legislation, nothing equivalent to the Civil Rights Act or anything, but I am working very hard and have been able to navigate the legislative process with bipartisan dance partners. But my focus is on who’s more effective in getting things done for the state of Hawaii and I believe that candidate is me.


Viewer question: Are the candidates for or against amnesty for undocumented immigrants? – Anonymous, Lihue, Kauai

Schatz: I am for comprehensive immigration reform and if the question is whether I think the 11 million undocumented workers ought to be able to come out of the shadows and become taxpayers and become participants in our society, my answer is yes. I also want to take a moment to recognize Mazie Hirono. There are a couple of categories of immigration that get a lot of attention, the so-called high skilled immigration, and then the 11 million undocumented workers. But where Mazie has really led is in family reunification policy. She’s on the judiciary committee and this is really important to the Filipino community in Hawaii and across the nation. The story of Hawaii is the story of immigration and the way most people come to Hawaii in terms of immigration is through the family reunification part of the statute. I just wanted to recognize Mazie for continuing to focus on that issue even while a lot of the attention was elsewhere.

Follow-up question: Should outright amnesty be one of those immediate pathways?

Schatz: If by amnesty you mean that 11 million people who are currently living in the shadows will come out of the shadows, will pay a fine, will become taxpayers, will become part of our community and part of the American fabric, the answer is yes.

Hanabusa: There’s no question, reunification was a very important part of it. Mazie did a very good job. But also understand a lot of that was because the United States broke its word to the Filipino immigrants. What we did was after WWII, we said they would have reunification and they didn’t do it and that portion of the bill took care of that. There is no question, we have to look at some way of having amnesty. Even the president says, however, that you need to be able to analyze each person and then give them the rights to become citizens.


Viewer Question: What do the candidates propose to do to reduce the national debt ($17 trillion plus) and eliminate further deficit spending? - Mel, Mililani

Hanabusa: Congress has already taken steps on doing that. It’s already 50 percent of what it was supposed to be. A lot of that was simply by doing the facts and what we did was cap spending, took it back to the 2008 level and all the departments have to stay within that cap. The second thing that we did, which may not be popular with some of the more wealthy people, was the Bush tax cuts were allowed to expire on those who earn $450,000 for couples. By doing that, literally the deficit that we face went down to about half, to $500 billion when it was expected to be a trillion. A lot more to be done, but not withstanding, those steps have been taken. The bottom line is the economy has got to get better. When the economy gets better, we will be able to do this and think now, the deficit and the debt are all being looked at as what percentage of the gross domestic product.

Schatz: Debt and deficits are not the main problem anymore. Six or seven years ago there was an obsession with debts and deficits. They actually put benefit cuts on the table and that was the unfortunate situation where not just Republicans but some Democrats, including Colleen, were willing to entertain the Simpson-Bowles amendment to the so-called Require a Plan Act, which really would have undermined the Social Security program and done a couple of quite damaging things to Medicare. But now we’re in a different situation. We have reduced the deficit, not in a very intelligent way, but we’ve reduced the deficit by trillions of dollars. It is now 70 percent lower on an operating level than it was six or seven years ago. What we have to focus on now is preserving the social safety net, making sure we make investments in infrastructure and investing in education. Our country has to invest in itself. We have to stop this austerity program.


Schatz to Hanabusa: Last year, I introduced the Strengthening Social Security Act that extends the life of the program and increases Social Security benefits by approximately $65 a month. The identical House bill has 60 Democratic co-sponsors, which does not currently include you. Would you pledge to support this bill and sign on as a co-sponsor?

Hanabusa: I have no problem supporting the bill. My problem has always been in how are we going to pay for it? I’m very concerned about the fact that Social Security’s trust fund has to justify its existence for 75 years. I believe that the increase in cap is going to the extension of the life of Social Security. But I would tell you if you could verify for me that it will actually pay for itself and keep the Social Security trust fund alive and well, I’ll be the first to sign onto it.

Schatz: Thank you, Colleen, we’ll send you the draft on Monday. The bill is drafted, it’s in front of you, I assume it was circulating because it was circulating among members of the delegation. I’m pleased to hear you will support the legislation.

Hanabusa to Schatz: The Abercrombie/Schatz administration wanted to balance the state’s budget on the backs of our kupuna when you proposed taxing retirees’ pensions. It would especially hurt those who are without Social Security checks. AARP strongly opposed that because they said it was the beginning of a slippery slope. What were you thinking when you supported Governor Abercrombie in HB1092?

Schatz: I had specific kuleana as your Lieutenant Governor. I served on the capacity of executing on the Hawaii Clean Energy Initiative and together we were able to more than double the clean energy portfolio of Hawaii. I was the lead state official for the Asia Pacific Economy Cooperation meeting where President Obama hosted more than 20 leaders from around the world and I also ran the Hawaii Fair Share Initiative, which was designed to maximize federal investment in Hawaii. I didn’t agree with the pension tax but when I worked in the Abercrombie administration, when we had disagreements, they were in private. Now, I’m in a different role. I’m your senator and when I disagree with you or the governor or when I disagree with President Obama, I will certainly disagree publicly. My role right now is to make sure I focus on what’s best for the people of Hawaii and that’s what I’m going to do.

debate hanabusa photo

Hanabusa: This is a picture, February 17, 2011, Aiea/Pearl City town hall meeting. There, you said the Abercrombie budget cuts and tax increase proposals are tough but needed. One of the things I did when I was Senate president was to take of course the Senate electronic, so I was able to review every piece of testimony under HB1092. I never saw one in opposition by you and all the filings by the Abercrombie administration clearly referenced this as the Abercrombie/Schatz proposal. Do you want a copy of this?


Question: Due to behind-the-scenes decisions on Wall Street that sparked the recent recession, Hawaii residents have tightened their belts and postponed retirement. At a time when individuals are assuming greater responsibility for their financial security, what can Congress do to make it easier and more transparent to save and invest?

Hanabusa: The one thing Congress has to start to seriously look at is exactly what is taxed. On the federal level, Social Security is part of that tax, so are all of these investments. So as you increase Social Security benefits or savings, to have that taxed is counterintuitive to the whole process. I wasn’t aware of this until I really looked into the Abercrombie/Schatz proposal of 2011 when he wanted to tax the seniors’ pension benefits. That’s a very critical part, especially in Hawaii. When people make decisions to retire in Hawaii because of the fact that we don’t tax seniors’ pension, we have to look at that and keep our word. Let’s start by looking at how the taxation system works, how it hasn’t changed, and ensure that our seniors do not get taxed like the Abercrombe/Schatz proposal of 2011.

Schatz: I remember running into somebody in the doctor’s waiting room when the market crashed. They were six months from retirement and suddenly found themselves eight years from retirement. It really struck me. You spend all your life saving and planning and doing all the right things. You live the American dream and try to support your family and then the market crashed. So I think the most important thing we can do, not just for seniors, but community members everywhere is Wall Street reform. I think Dodd Frank was an important first step, but it really hasn’t gone far enough. What’s happening with derivatives trading and banks being too big to fail again is really concerning and I think we need to take another crack at Wall Street reform to make sure that individuals who save for their retirement have their retirement protected.

Follow-up question: Would that reform include prosecuting big banks?

Schatz: I’m a big supporter of President Obama and I think he has done as much as he possibly could have done with respect to reforming the big banks on Wall Street. Where I think they have fallen short is they need to prosecute individuals because some of the same individuals who did so much damage to the American economy are running around, taking the same risks, and basically incurring that risk on our behalf as they privatize their profit.

Hanabusa: The most important thing for everyone is if they save and they’re investing, it’s how do they keep the money. There’s no promise that if you go and do this massive reform, that they’re going to keep the money. Where you can see the actual keeping of the money is when they don’t get taxed on it. When people decide if they’re going to retire in Hawaii, they know that their retirement income is not going to be taxed. How about federal employees who did not get Social Security? They should not be taxed.

Follow-up question: Are you willing to say categorically that you’re opposed to federal taxes on Social Security payments?

Hanabusa: I’m opposed to federal taxes on Social Security payments.

Schatz: I am as well.


Question: There’s widespread agreement that the formula for setting the pay rate for doctors who treat Medicare patients is flawed. In Hawaii, neighbor island residents, in particular, live with the uncertainty of having doctors stop accepting Medicare patients due to scheduled annual reimbursement cuts of around 25 percent. What’s your proposal for addressing this challenge once and for all?

Schatz: This really is one of the great challenges of living on the neighbor islands. We have worked on legislation to offer differential reimbursements for people in rural hospitals and also to make sure that some of our low volume hospitals get a little bit of a subsidy to be able to provide the care. There’s no silver bullet here. We have to strengthen the Medicare program. My own view is the easiest way to strengthen the Medicare program which would not require any additional tax revenue or any cuts to anything else is if we could get a better deal on the prescription medication that we’re already buying. We could actually find tens of billions of dollars in savings and then we could pour that into providers. People on the neighbor islands, they may be covered, but if you can’t find a provider, then your insurance isn’t worth as much. I think the best thing we could do is move forward on prescription drug reform under Medicare Part D.

Hanabusa: I just want to clarify, I oppose what they called the dual eligibles on the basis that the savings goes to deficit reduction, not back to Medicare. It was actually going to be passed onto the seniors and we can’t have that. When you cut the providers, the two percent, which Brian voted for, that’s exactly who you’re cutting. You’re cutting the physicians and you hear it. It’s the sustainable growth rate, and that’s something we try to fix every single year but we just don’t have the political will to do it. What we need to look at, we talked about two years ago. Section 3601 of the Affordable Care Act which says that all the savings from Medicare is supposed to go back to Medicare and reduce the cost. We had politicians run on the fact that there was a $700 billion savings in Medicare, but it didn’t go back because if that money went back, we would have a better discussion here today.


Question: Unlike private insurance plans, Medicare is legally prohibited from negotiating with pharmaceutical companies for lower drug costs. Do you support allowing Medicare to use the bargaining power of its 48 million beneficiaries to negotiate for lower prescription drug prices for seniors?

Hanabusa: Definitely. The veterans administration is a very good example of how they allow for those kinds of negotiations. It makes no sense that Medicare is not allowed to do that. We also have to be cognizant of the fact that the one thing Medicare changes have done is to give us Part D, which gave prescription coverage to our seniors. Now we are able to see that donut hole that was created close over time. The most important thing we have to do is to ensure that we don’t cut Medicare. The bipartisan budget act, which I voted against, actually cut Medicare two years and two percent. When you cut providers, you cut Medicare benefits.

Schatz: Here’s the problem. Prescription medication under Part D is a great benefit, but we’re just paying too much. The federal government as a result of the Republicans helping to write the law in concert with the pharmaceutical industry have required that we don’t get the wholesale rate. We actually pay the retail rate. There’s no good reason for that other than it’s a giveaway to the pharmaceutical industry. We can reform that. Colleen has opposed the legislation that I’ve co-introduced. We should reform this program and take the tens of billions of dollars in savings that would come as a result of the issue you’re talking about and pour that back into the benefit. Medicare needs to be strengthened and this is the most straightforward way to do that.


Question: Hawaii residents have worked hard and paid into Social Security and they deserve to know all the proposals on the table in Washington to strengthen the program. You both support increasing the payroll tax cap – which tops out at $117,000 this year. Can you identify two additional ideas you support to make Social Security strong for present and future generations?

Schatz: The first idea you mentioned is the idea we ought to pursue. The first $114,000 worth of salary is taxed for Social Security purposes. Whether you make $114 million or $114,000, you may the same dollar amount in Social Security tax. That’s not fair and if we would not just raise the cap but lift the cap, we could generate enough revenue to extend the solvency of the Social Security trust fund and also increase benefits by roughly $65 per recipient per month. What we were able to do is change the political conversation and shift it from entertaining cuts to strengthening this very important program.

Follow-up question: Do you think raising the cap or eliminating the cap is enough to make social security stable?

Schatz: It would generate enough revenue at least in the next several decades if we lifted the cap or raised the cap. What we’re finding right now is that people across the country are ahead of the politicians. This has become a partisan issue. But if you take a poll, everybody thinks that this program works, thinks that it’s efficient and thinks that we owe it to our seniors to protect this program. Where we’re going to end up is eventually lifting the cap.

Hanabusa: There’s no question that raising the cap is something people have talked about for a long time. In fact, it was supposed to be raised and for some reason it hasn’t been kept up. People are saying maybe by the year 2050, it would rise to $190,000. I happen to agree with Brian. I think the cap should be lifted completely off.

However, the question you raised, whether or not that’s going to be sufficient, probably not. Social Security has a trust fund so it’s trustees meet every year. Unfortunately I was hoping by this debate, we’d be able to share with AARP what they see for the future. Right now it’s 2033 with no problem. If you raise the cap, it will take care of part of that, but they have to be solvent for 75 years. So in addition to that, we must realize that we can do a variety of different things. One, look at our tax structure. Make sure we don’t tax Social Security the way it has been. That hasn’t changed. That’s a major thing we should consider looking at. AARP had taken a very forward position when the Abercrombie, Schatz administration tried to tax it on the state level because when you do that, it really reduces the Social Security. So there are different ways of preserving Social Security.

In addition to that, the best way is the economy’s got to grow so people can have jobs and make contributions to that trust fund. Government has got to keep its paws off of that trust fund.


Question: Social Security hasn’t added a dime to the federal deficit, yet many in Congress have talked about cuts to the program as part of a ‘grand bargain’ on deficit reduction. Will you pledge to take Social Security off the table in any future negotiations on a budget deal?

Hanabusa: Of course I would take that pledge to take it off the table on any budget deal. Social Security is something that is a trust fund and one that all the members of AARP and others have contributed to. It’s technically their money. So to be able to say of course it shouldn’t be part of what we do to reduce the deficit is something I think any person would do to take that pledge.

Schatz: Social security is personal. For Linda and myself, we live in the same household with Linda’s parents. We understand that this is family insurance. This is economic insurance. There was a time six, seven years ago when even Democrats were discussing cuts to Social Security. I have never supported that. I have always supported not just defending social security against cuts, but also enhancing the program. This is the most successful anti-poverty program in American history. We ought to be talking about how to strengthen the program, not talk about cuts to undermine it.


6:55 p.m. Everyone’s on set and ready to get started.

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6:30 p.m. Our set is ready! The candidates and panelists are here and gearing up for the start of tonight’s live debate. Click here to find out how the debate will work and watch interviews with both candidates.

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