Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s idea to make changes to Social Security haunted her first election campaign in 2014. In 2020, the issue has come back to challenge her re-election bid.
In 2014, then-candidate Ernst considered using Social Security payroll taxes to create personal savings accounts for anyone entering the workforce.
Rivals scrutinized her plan in a series of advertisements. In one, she was accused of “privatizing Social Security, gambling our savings in the stock market.”
Another ad, released by the League of Conservation voters, says: “That’s Joni Ernst, talking about risking thousands of Iowans’ Social Security on Wall Street.”
Now, nearly six years later, Ernst has another plan to change the way Social Security benefits work.
She’s pushing a family leave plan to allow parents and caretakers to withdraw Social Security funds to finance time away from work.
It’s an idea the Des Moines Register’s editorial board said won’t work like it should.
Recently, Ernst said members of Congress “need to sit down behind closed doors so we’re not being scrutinized by this group or the other, and just have an open and honest conversation about what are some of the ideas that we have for maintaining Social Security in the future.”
Ernst has been quoted multiple times saying she wanted to change Social Security, though she has rarely discussed the specific ideas.
Ernst first stirred up debate about whether Social Security should be changed during an Iowa Press Primary Debate on April 24, 2014.
“I think we have to keep the promises that have been made to our seniors, but we do have to change the way we do business with our younger workers or those that are just entering the workforce,” Ernst said. “And I agree, we do have to look at some sort of a personal savings account.”
Then, during a KCCI News primary debate in May 2014, Ernst said again she would explore the idea of individual savings accounts.
Iowa Public Radio’s Clay Masters questioned Ernst in 2014 on how far she’d take the changes to Social Security, asking, “Is privatization of Social Security on the table?”
“Well, there is an option out there, and it is one that has been discussed in previous legislatures. It’s something that could be in the mix,” Ernst replied. “But it is again just an option, it’s not one that I’ve endorsed. I’ve looked at a lot of different things. But, again, because it is a Republican and Democratic issue, we need to sit down and look through all options and make sure that for these younger workers, we’re finding a way to shore up Social Security for the long term.”
Headlines about Ernst’s thoughts on Social Security fizzled out around then and disappeared until GOP senators introduced a plan in 2018 to raid Social Security for a paid family leave policy.
“We have made commitments to those that are currently on Social Security and of course those that are approaching retirement age,” Ernst said, at an Oct. 26, 2018, town hall meeting in Albia. “But there is no doubt that some point in the future we are going to have to address it.”
Perhaps Ernst refused to elaborate on the changes she wanted to see in Social Security because it’s a “dirty little secret,” like she said during an April 25, 2019, town hall in Dubuque.
“Yes, isn’t it amazing that so often we only start talking about Social Security or Medicare when it hits the headlines?” Ernst asked. “And it is something that we should be working on all the time. But of course what happens with Congress is nobody wants to talk about it. It’s like this dirty secret that heaven forbid we make changes to Social Security. But folks, understand we have to make changes to Social Security.”
It was her latest comments about the “need to sit down behind closed doors” to discuss changing Social Security that grabbed the national media’s attention.
The Los Angeles Times claimed Ernst was hinting at “gutting Social Security,” as did New York Magazine. The Washington Post stuck with the headline that Ernst wanted to “fix” Social Security behind closed doors.
Ernst will likely be unopposed in her Republican primary in 2020, although several Democratic candidates have signed up to challenge the senator, including: Michael Franken, Kimberly Graham, Theresa Greenfield and Eddie Mauro.
By Paige Godden
Photo by Julie Fleming