Biden, who was running for a third Senate term that year in business-friendly Delaware, seemed to understand the political risk.
“While this program is severe, it is the only proposal that will halt the upward spiral of deficits,” he said at the time, as
reported by ABC News, before adding that it was the only way to prevent an “economic and political crisis.”
Biden repeated such concerns on the Senate floor later that year when arguing for the freeze to his colleagues.
“The only way that Congress will ever be able to come to grips with deficits is by dealing with all federal programs as a package,” Biden
said in April 1984, according to the Congressional Record. “This can happen when the beneficiaries of each program see that all others are being treated similarly.”
“Only our bipartisan budget freezes all aspects of the budget,” he added at the time.
In another portion of the speech, Biden directly addressed the impact his proposed budget freeze would have on Social Security.
“So, when those of my friends in the Democratic and Republican Party say to me, ‘How do you expect me to vote for your proposal? Does it not freeze Social Security [cost of living adjustments] for 1 year? Are we not saying there will be no cost-of-living increases for one year?’ The answer to that is ‘Yes,’ that is what I am saying,” he told the Senate, adding that without reining in the deficit more difficult decisions would be required later.
Although the Biden-Grassley spending freeze was defeated by the Senate in May 1984 by a
landslide vote (65 to 33), the political risks associated with it never materialized. That November, Biden won reelection by more than 20 percentage points, even as Reagan carried Delaware by a similar margin.
Despite losing the initial vote in 1984, Biden continued championing a freeze to federal spending, including Social Security, well afterward. In November 1987, shortly after ending his first bid for the Democrat nomination, Biden rallied a bipartisan group of senators to propose a spending freeze for the final year of the Reagan administration. Biden’s proposal was no less controversial in 1987 than in 1984 because of its implications for Social Security.
At the time, the
Dayton Daily News reported that Biden, noting his own history of securing reelection while championing the policy, was attempting to reassure congressional colleagues that “you can say freeze and …. still have a political life after [budget] freezes.”
Biden’s commitment to reducing the deficit, even at the expense of programs like Social Security, was further displayed throughout the 1990s. One instance, in particular, emerged during the congressional fight over a balanced budget amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1994.
Initially, Biden signaled his support for the amendment but
argued that Social Security should be carved out, since it’s spending would be consistently in fluctuation depending on the retirement age and number of beneficiaries. When attempts to carve out Social Security failed, Biden still opted to vote for the amendment as a whole, claiming the choice was between an “imperfect amendment or continued spending.”