KAHULUI - Maintaining the solvency of Social Security and Medicare was the focus of a debate Tuesday between U.S. Rep. Mazie Hirono and former Congressman Ed Case, both vying for the Democratic nomination to replace U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka.
But the event also gave the candidates an opportunity to highlight their differences as voters weigh their options for the Aug. 11 primary election.
Hirono said that she and Case have different leadership styles.
Ed Case and Mazie Hirono appear at a debate sponsored by AARP Hawaii in the Maui Beach Hotel’s Elleair Room on Tuesday. Gerald Kato, longtime University of Hawaii-Manoa journalism professor and Honolulu journalist, served as the moderator for the debate involving the candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate.
The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo
"I don't stand on the sideline and say I'm independent and not work with my colleagues both in my own caucus and across the aisle," she told about 125 people in the Maui Beach Hotel's Elleair Room." My record reflects that kind of collaborative style."
Case drew at least one catcall when he said he didn't know what his differences with Hirono are "because she has not been forthcoming with her record and her agenda."
"This is a campaign for one of the most important elections this year in our country, one of the most important elections for Hawaii in a generation, and we should . . . talk about our agenda, our record, our beliefs. And I just don't know what Mazie's are," Case said.
Hirono responded that: "I think the people of Hawaii know where I stand. People of Hawaii want to know who they can vote for is a person who stands with them. And, I have a record of standing with the people of my district who have voted for me time and again."
The debate sponsored by AARP Hawaii featured issues of most concern to elderly voters, particularly Social Security, which federal officials have predicted will run out of trust funds by 2033.
Hirono opposed cutting benefits or raising the current retirement age of 65 to 67 years old. She advocated increasing the Social Security income tax cap above its current $106,000.
Case supported raising the cap but not abolishing it, and he advocated raising the retirement age - not for seniors who've retired or are nearing retirement, but for people currently in their 20s and 30s.
Hirono said that she has listened to kupuna across the state who have shared their concerns about access to health care and the future of their Social Security and Medicare safety nets.
"I will fight to strengthen Social Security and Medicare and find solutions that actually help you, not rob you of the benefits that you worked hard for," she said.
She acknowledged that tough decisions will be necessary, "but not decisions that will make your lives even tougher. We need somebody who shares our values, who understands that Social Security and Medicare are not just programs to manage, but commitments."
Case said Social Security and Medicare are "two of the most successful programs our country has ever adopted, two programs that have literally saved millions of lives and lifted tens of millions out of poverty and dire circumstances."
He said he wants to preserve the retirement and health programs for future generations, and "we do not have to reduce benefits for anybody that is receiving them today or that expects to receive them any time in the near future."
Hirono said the greatest challenge facing Social Security is its solvency, and she said that issue can be addressed by lifting the current income tax cap of $106,000 for contributions to the federal retirement program.
"If we lift that cap, we can keep Social Security solvent for the next 75 years. That does not take away from any of the benefits that you have worked so hard for," she said.
Case agreed solvency is Social Security's greatest threat, but even though the trust fund won't be exhausted until 2033, "that doesn't mean that we don't have a problem right now."
He pointed out that the federal budget's general fund subsidizes Social Security with $400 billion per year. "That's not a good situation," he said, urging immediate action to save the retirement program in the long term.
Hirono said Social Security should not be cut to balance the nation's budget.
"I don't think that's a fair way to go," she said. "We do need to get our economy going. That's what we ought to be focusing on, creating jobs for our people so that they would be paying into Social Security."
Case said that although raising the retirement age is an unpopular move, it will be necessary to slow down the growth of benefits in the next 40 to 50 years. He pointed out the retirement age was raised in 1983 and that could be done again well ahead of retirement age for young people.
"I think that's a fair deal to give people in their 20s and 30s a chance to get ready for that," he said. "And that will balance Social Security fairly and across the board."
Hirono said studies have shown that raising the retirement age would not have much of an effect on maintaining the solvency of Social Security.
"I'm looking for solutions that will truly have a major impact," she said. "One of the strongest ways is to lift that income cap."
Case urged looking at the broader economic impacts of raising the income tax cap for Social Security.
"We have to remember that every time we lift that cap we are taxing somebody - the employee at 6.2 percent of his or her earnings and the employer at 6.2 percent of his or her earnings," he said. "Now, if you eventually tax people too much, they're going to shut down, and they're not going to grow an economy."
Hirono and Case generally agreed that the biggest challenge facing Medicare is rising health costs, and they supported controlling costs through the federal Affordable Care Act that would provide health insurance to most Americans.
Case and Hirono said that they would support the end of Bush-era income and capital gains tax cuts.
Hirono said the tax cuts have mostly benefited the richest 2 percent of Americans.
"Of course we need tax fairness in our country, and everyone needs to pay their fair share," she said.
Case said that while he was a member of Congress in 2003, he voted against the Bush tax cuts because he thought they were "unfair, unaffordable and not necessary for economic recovery."
But he cautioned against taxing people too much.
"At some point if you load the taxes up too much on those that are making more than others, you're going to kill economic activity," he said.
Tuesday's event was the second of four scheduled joint appearances by the candidates before the Aug. 11 primary election. (The first event on May 29 was a forum sponsored by the Hawaii Lodging and Tourism Association and an earlier scheduled joint appearance before the Oahu Democrats group was postponed and has not been rescheduled.)
The next debate will be from 7 to 8 p.m. today on Hawaii Public Radio, which can be found on KHPR 88.1, KKUA 90.7 and KANO 91.1. Then, from 8 to 9 p.m. Thursday, "Insights" on PBS Hawaii will host Case and Hirono in a live, televised debate hosted by Dan Boylan. That debate also will be accessible online via live stream at pbshawaii.org. Viewers may submit questions by calling (808) 973-1000 or (800) 238-4847. Questions also may be submitted via email at email@example.com or through Twitter or live blogging.
* Brian Perry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.