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VERIFY: Did Joe Biden vote to tax social security benefits twice during his Senate career?

The Verify Team was sent an email, in which a viewer claimed that Joe Biden voted to tax social security benefits two times in his career. This is true.

WASHINGTON — Question: 

Did Joe Biden vote to tax Social Security benefits two times in his Senate career, as claimed?

Answer:

Yes. In 1983, Joe Biden joined a bipartisan effort to make 50% of Social Security benefits taxable, for those above a certain income. This new revenue would go towards the Social Security Trust Fund.  

In 1993, Biden joined a partisan effort to narrowly pass an "Omnibus Bill," mostly focused on lowering the deficit. Included in this large package was a bill that changed the level of taxable Social Security benefits from 50% to 85%. This new revenue would be directed to a trust fund for Medicare. 

Sources:

Joseph Cordes, Professor of Economics, Public Policy and Public Administration; Associate Director at Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration; The George Washington University

Alex Lawson, Executive Director of Social Security Works; Owner of We Act Radio

Social Security Administration, History Page

Social Security Administration, Myths and Misinformation

Progress:

A viewer contacted the Verify team with multiple claims about Joe Biden's past votes as a senator, in regards to taxation of Social Security benefits. The beginning of this viewer's email read as follows: 

Prior to 1983, social security was not taxable. In 1983, Joe Biden voted in favor of taxing 50% of social security - and it passed. In 1993, Joe Biden doubled down and was the deciding vote in raising the percentage taxed on social security from 50% to 85%.  

The Verify Team reached out to Social Security experts, to not only confirm that Biden voted for these bills, but also to get context and nuance to these decisions. The Verify team also looked through Social Security Administration records, for a detailed history of Social Security legislation. 

1984 Amendments To Social Security Act

Before 1983, Social Security benefits were "explicitly excluded from federal income taxation." This all changed with the passage of the 1983 Amendments to the Social Security Act. 

"Beginning in 1984, a portion of Social Security benefits have been subject to federal income taxes," the SSA history page read. 

Historical records from the SSA show that Biden was one of many senators that supported this bipartisan amendment. The change allowed for 50% of Social Security benefits to be taxable, so long as the recipient had a high enough income. 

Alex Lawson, from Social Security Works, explained to the Verify team why this change was made. 

"Social Security at that time was facing what's called an action-forcing event," he said. "It did not have the revenue coming in to sustain it moving forward. Something had to be done or Social Security benefits would have automatically fallen."

To find a solution to this problem, President Ronald Reagan appointed a new commission, referred to as the "Greenspan Commission," named after its chairman, Alan Greenspan. Greenspan would later go on to be the Chairman of the Federal Reserve.

This commission released a report, suggesting that a certain percentage of Social Security benefits should be taxable. In the end, this led to the 1984 amendments to the Social Security Act. 

This amendment allowed for 50% of Social Security benefits to be taxed, so long as the recipient had an income of more than $25,000, or $32,000 for joint filers. In both cases, the Social Security benefits themselves were not included in the income used to determine whether one was below the thresholds. 

The SSA wrote that the eventual vote was "overwhelmingly bipartisan," with support from Democrats and Republicans. It was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan.

"This was something where both sides of the aisle - as we now like to say - really did come together and voted for this," Joseph Cordes, Professor of Economics at The George Washington University, said. "And yes, then-Senator Biden was part of that group."

Importantly, this revenue was directed to the Social Security Trust Fund. 

“It was not a tax increase to fund general government spending," Cordes said. "It was a tax increase to help fund Social Security.” 

1993 Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act:

SSA records show that in 1993, there was yet another change in Social Security taxation policy. The bill increased the amount of taxable Social Security benefits, from 50% to 85%. That added revenue went to trust funds that feed into Medicare.

Biden voted for this bill as well, along with 49 other senators, all of whom were Democrats. The legislation, which was not supported by a single Republican in the Senate, was deadlocked with a 50-50 tie. In the end, then-Vice President Al Gore had to break the tie. 

"That was a partisan issue," Cordes said. "Unlike the first one."

Another big difference, in 1993, the taxation change was in just one bill within a massive package of bills proposed by the Clinton administration to lower the deficit.

"It’s called an ‘Omnibus,'" Lawson said. "And that means it’s a massive package that has all sorts of different things. And they smush it all together, and they pass it all as one package.”

Lawson argued that it would be unfair to criticize a lawmakers vote for any one aspect of an "Omnibus."

"The Social Security is included," he said. "But it's a very small portion of a much larger bill. And pulling out one part of an 'Omnibus' is the definition of political spin."

Click here, to read the full history of Social Security taxation policy, as described by the Social Security Administration.  

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