Washington Post On Social Security Long On Hyperbole Short On Facts

Journamalism in 2011 is long on hyperbolic headlines and short on actual facts.

If you go to The Washington Post business section this morning, you will see what I mean. Lori Montgomery has turned in, and an editor has seen fit to publish, 700 or so words of ignorant, unresearched blather and nonsense under the headline Social Security splinters Democrats in debate over reining in budget deficits. And the article lives down to the headline. It is a journalistic chimera of unsourced allegations and speculation, innuendo, conflated information and mindlessly regurgitated talking points asserted as fact.

With momentum building to rein in record budget deficits, Democrats are sharply divided over whether to tackle popular but increasingly expensive safety-net programs for the elderly, particularly Social Security.

Social Security does not contribute one penny to the deficit. It is a self-funded program and it is solvent until 2039 if we do nothing, indefinitely if we make a minor tweak and raise the earnings cap.

A growing number of Democratic lawmakers say they are willing to consider controversial measures such as raising the retirement age and reducing benefits for wealthier seniors as part of a compromise with Republicans to cut spending on the programs and stabilize them for future generations.

Really? Name them. Which Democrats are saying that they will consider these fundamental changes to the program that keeps millions of senior citizens out of poverty and enjoying a decent quality of life and living independently? Name them. If you can’t name them on the record, don’t make implications. That’s not a tool of the journalist; that’s a tool of the propagandist.

It is flat-out lying to imply that Social Security is responsible for the deficit when it is self-funded and solvent for decades and can be made so for generations to come simply by raising the cap on the income that the Social Security tax is collected on. Right now, every dollar you and I make, we pay Social Security taxes on. But people who make over $106,800 don’t pay anything on the money they make beyond that amount. It doesn’t matter if it’s a surgeon who works long hours and is underpaid at $300,000 or a Wall Street parasite stealing millions from people like that surgeon, they don’t pay Social Security taxes on the money they earn over $106,800. If that was changed, we would have indefinite solvency. Problem solved. Decades in advance.

But senior lawmakers such as Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) and Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) are lining up against them, arguing that tampering with Social Security would harm the elderly — as well as the political fortunes of Democrats hoping to maintain control of the White House and the Senate in 2012.

Nice! Way to go! That was a classic move there at the end, implying that Democrats only really care about their own political fortunes, not the quality of life of their elderly constituents. They just want to stay in office, and they’re sleazy enough to bribe grandma to do it. Too bad it’s been in use since at least 1983 and has grown stale and trite and only the lasiest and most inept of shills bothers with it anymore. Most decent hacks worth their salt would be ashamed to trot it out.

The dispute, long simmering behind the scenes, is poised to erupt into public view. Reid has scheduled a rally Monday on Capitol Hill to show “support for Social Security and opposition to cuts in benefits,” according to an e-mail sent to liberal activists. And House Democrats this week signaled their intention to use Social Security as a cudgel in next year’s elections by launching an ad campaign accusing 10 GOP lawmakers in swing districts of plotting to cut the program.

Long-simmering? Really? Hmmm. I have a friend or two on the hill and talk to a couple of congressional staffers for a couple of Missouri politicians who are right in the thick of every tussle, and if there was a "long-simmering" dispute that was about to blow up, I would know it. I haven’t heard anything, but just to be sure, I called one of those friends this morning and asked. He literally chuckled and said, in a Seinfeld-esque sort of way, "I don’t think so."

I laughed too and said, "Well, I figured if there was you would have told me," to which he responded "definitely."

I am most impressed, though, with the way Montgomery manages to make the fact that the Democrats are going to run ads that tell the truth about the Republican positions on Social Security — sound like they’re playing dirty. Since when is it sleazy to point out to the voters that a sitting representative said of Social Security "I don’t like it"? The examples are repleat and using them isn’t in any way sleazy.

Meanwhile, Third Way, the centrist Democratic think tank, plans to release a memo Friday arguing that the deficit has emerged as an uncommonly powerful political issue and that 2012 voters will reward the party that takes bold action to restrain government spending — including overhauling Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. “In our view, Republicans are winning this fight,” the memo says, according to an advance copy provided to The Washington Post. “They are winning by taking on an issue that voters believe is serious; they are winning on candor; and they are winning by being on the side of reform. Democrats — who ran on change — are quickly becoming the status quo party on the budget.” In an interview, Third Way policy director and former Schumer aide Jim Kessler said, “There’s a conventional view right now that [entitlement spending] is an issue that shouldn’t be touched within the Democratic Party, that we should wait for Republicans to act and trap them.” “… Our view is, that might work in a normal time. But this isn’t a normal time,” he said. “We think it’s more dangerous politically not to be in this debate than to be in it.”

Of course. I should have known from the tone that the spineless sellouts of Third Way — they are not Democrats, they are what we used to call Rockefeller Republicans — would pop up halfway through, and whadya know? Halfway through, they become the focus of the entire article. Here’s a bit of free advice for Third Way and Ms. Montgomery…Sometimes everybody hates you not because you are doing something right, but because you are the very epitome of "wrong." This is the case with Third Way. Even mentioning them is a conversation ender. So is conflating Medicare and Medicaid with Social Security. So there’s two strikes. The only reason to keep reading now is to see just how deep she can manage to dig this spectacular hole she’s furiously toiling away at.

How Democrats resolve the dispute could affect not only the party’s political fortunes but also the future of talks aimed at developing a bipartisan strategy for stabilizing the national debt. With a critical vote looming later this year to raise the legal limit on government borrowing past $14.3 trillion, six senators from both parties are working to come up with a debt reduction plan that could win broad support — and Republicans consider Social Security a key part of the solution.

Did she not get the memo? The grand bargain sellout is dead. And as for the debt ceiling, well, that’s Boehner’s problem. He’s the one that needs to get the votes together. If the Democrats have any sense and political savvy, they will call the bluff of the Republicans who are blustering about default if Social Security isn’t cut. The freshmen Republicans are not as "independent" as they have sold themselves to be. One half of the Republicans in Congress (and at least a third of the Democrats) are a wholly owned subsidiary of Wall Street, and the other half of the Republican caucus is the government affairs division of Koch Industries. No matter who is controlling the strings of the Republican Marionettes, they won’t be letting the country default on our debts. They will be brought to heel before we default.

Social Security is the single largest federal program, dispensing about $700 billion last year to nearly 60 million people, the vast majority of them retirees. Since the program’s creation in 1935, the cost of Social Security benefits has been entirely covered by payroll taxes paid by current workers. This year, however, payroll tax revenues are projected to fall $45 billion short of covering benefits, and the problem is projected to grow as the number of retirees balloons compared with the number of working adults.

Good grief, I get tired of singing this tune. Social Security is a separate, self-funded entity that has nothing to do with the deficit. There is no Social Security crisis. Over and over again, the Congressional Budge Office issues reports that find the Social Security trust fund, without changing a thing, will be able to make full payouts through 2039 — it should also be noted that the full payout projections have been pushed downward by the economic downturn of the last couple of years, and those numbers should start moving the other way as the economy recovers. And if that isn’t the case, we have a lot bigger problems than Social Security coming down the pike.

And even if the trust fund were to run out, Social Security would still be in pretty good shape. First of all, the trust fund is a relatively recent creation. It was established in 1983, three years before the baby boomers started turning forty, to deal with the demographic bulge headed Social Security’s way in 2011. The last boomers will retire in 2029, 10 years before the trust fund is currently projected to be depleted. Essentially, when the trust fund runs dry, it will coincide with the fact that it’s mission will be, for the most part, complete. It will have eased the strain caused by the retirement of the baby boom. The depletion of the Social Security trust fund is not a pending disaster, it’s by design. The fact of the matter is, in case you are one of the people in this country to whom facts matter, Social Security is a self-funding entity, independent of the general fund. It funds itself entirely through payroll taxes, and so long as payroll taxes are collected, retirees will get their checks. The only way that changes is if Congress acts to stop collecting payroll taxes or to outright abolish the program.

Democrats have traditionally defended the program, but even some liberal lawmakers now say changes in the benefit structure are required. Last week, 32 Senate Democrats joined 32 Senate Republicans on a letter in support of a broad-based deficit reduction effort that includes changes to entitlement programs. One of the letter’s authors, Sen. Michael F. Bennet (D-Colo.), acknowledged that polls show people are overwhelmingly opposed to cutting Social Security and Medicare when asked about the programs individually. But, he said, they also want a plan to control spending that requires “everybody to put something on the table. … I am absolutely convinced if we put a comprehensive plan in front of people, they would cheer from the rooftops.” (Bloggers aside: I wonder what context of the quote was erased by that elipses…don’t you?) Reid spokesman Jon Summers dismissed that argument. “Senator Reid doesn’t believe that the budget should be balanced on the backs of America’s seniors, plain and simple,” he said.

Good grief…ninety-ninth verse, same as the first…Social Security is a separate entity, independent of the general fund. Medicaid and Medicare are not. Forget about Social Security. Put it over here in a lock box, as Al Gore said, and Just. Forget. About. It. Where the debt and the deficit are concerned, Social Security is off the table because it did nothing to make the crisis. Tax cuts and George Bush driving the economy into the ditch are what made the crisis. Social Security has kept it from being worse by buffering seniors from the vagaries of the market and the larger economy. I don’t know about you, but I get a lot of peace of mind knowing that my mother is not going to end up living with me because she’s broke.


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This post originally appeared at Show Me Progress and is part of a series I am writing as a blogging fellow for the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, a coalition of more than 270 national and state organizations dedicated to preserving and strengthening Social Security.

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