In every successful struggle there’s a time to celebrate a hard-fought victory. When it comes to Social Security, this is not that time.
It’s true that, after including the “chained CPI” benefit cut in his latest budget, President Obama seems to have dropped the idea. And it's true there’s no talk of a “grand bargain” on the horizon. But it would still be a serious mistake to become complacent about Social Security.
Even now, in the August heat and summer doldrums, there are stirrings which suggest a deal could be on the way. Washington insiders report that meetings are being held to hammer it out. Republicans are now publicly backing the president's proposed cuts.
If you, like most Americans, expect to depend on Social Security, now would be a good time to get worried – and get active. If you’re a Democrat who cares about the political fate of your party, complacency about Social Security would be an even bigger mistake. The president's misguided notions about a Social Security deal may well have cost Democrats the House in 2010.
The Senate could be the next to fall.
But while there are troubling signs on the horizon, there are also very promising ones. We'll start with the bad news.
The president's willing to cut benefits.
Once again the president has wisely shifted his rhetoric from deficit reduction from job creation. Would he still cut Social Security, wounding one of his party’s signature achievements and dealing a harsh blow to its electoral chances?
He’s certainly been willing to do it before. One of his first executive acts was the creation of a “deficit commission” led by two rabid anti-Social Security activists, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. Social Security was included in their mandate even though it’s forbidden by law from adding to the deficit. And a very senior Cabinet official told this writer and other journalists early in the Obama presidency that the Administration intended to push for Social Security cuts.
And remember: These moves were made when Democrats held the White House, the Senate, and Congress.
The President was also planning to announce unilateral cuts to Social Security in his 2011 State of the Union message until, as the Wall Street Journal reported, he was pressured to back down at the last minute. And he continues to push for these cuts in negotiations with the Republicans.
The Republicans are calling for them.
The Republicans shrewdly – and predictably – moved to the left of the president with a “Seniors’ Bill of Rights” in 2010, after he publicly discussed cuts. His equivocation on Social Security probably helped them win the House. (We reviewed the polling data here.)
They’re using the same playbook again this year. (We expected that, but miscalculated the length of time it would take them to outflank him on this issue: It took 15 minutes.)
But now that the posturing’s done, the horse trading has begun. They won't play their "Republicans for Social Security" card until election time. Now they're sending their signals, luring the Democrats into a trap.
“You want sequester relief?” said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell in July. “Then let’s talk about a reduction in entitlement spending,” And House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said earlier this month that "what we need to have happen is leadership on the part of this president and the White House to … say we're going to fix the underlying problem that's driving our deficit … the entitlement programs and the unfunded liability that they are leaving on this generation and the next."
In other words: You first, Mr. President.
Conservatives still don’t understand fiscal policy.
Cantor’s completely wrong. (No shocker there.) Social Security is funded separately and must be entirely self-sustaining through the payroll taxes earmarked for its use. This separate accounting is what has allowed anti-government advocates to create a false sense of hysteria about potential shortfalls (not “bankruptcy”) two or more decades from now.
Now clueless conservatives are backing the president's misguided “chained CPI” cut, echoing the argument that Social Security’s inflation calculations are too high. (They’re too low, at least for seniors.) When they combine this with their hostility for the Fed’s “quantitative easing” they’re also, as Paul Krugman points out, arguing that actual inflation is simultaneously both higher and lower than current figures suggest.
Krugman couldn’t resist throwing in in a “Schrödinger” reference, referring to the physicist whose famous thought experiment involved a cat which was both alive and dead at the same time – which is also the current state of most Americans’ retirement security. Republicans can't be reasoned with based on facts - but politically they're as shrewd as they come.
The politics are disastrous.
If losing the House wasn’t enough for Democrats, a benefit-cutting “grand bargain” should finish the job. As Derek Thompson noted in April, the president's budget cuts both Social Security and Medicare far more than the Republicans’ did. In fact, the GOP’s Ryan budget didn’t cut Social Security at all, and its radical dismantling of Medicare wasn’t scheduled to begin until 2023.
“Crazy Republicans,” said some Democratic cheerleaders, “We’ve given them way more than they even asked for!”
Yeah, crazy all right – like a fox. (Or a Fox Network.) This kind of deal would give them something they’ve always wanted, and let them blame it on the Democrats.
But the news isn’t all bad. There are some promising signs on the horizon, too, and they give us even more reason to seize this moment on behalf of Social Security.
Activists are mobilized against cuts.
Activists remain heavily mobilized against Social Security cuts. Progressive groups collected over two million signatures opposing them. Tens of thousands of people signed an anti-cut “birthday card” to Social Security last week on the 78th anniversary of its creation.
They’re also bringing the struggle to the politicians whose support will be needed to protect the program. The Progressive Congressional Campaign Committee (PCCC) ran a TV ad in Kentucky last week scolding Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who’s locked in a tight primary race, for his anti-Social Security efforts.
MoveOn is fundraising for two Democratic candidates based on their unequivocal opposition to a “grand bargain” with cuts. It has labeled the two, Brian Schatz for Senate and Mike Honda for Congress, “champions of Social Security.” MoveOn specifically says that it’s backing the two in part because they “helped lead the fight to protect Social Security.”
If there’s one thing politicians understand, it’s being rewarded with campaign cash for taking the right position – or punished, as the PCCC is doing, for taking the wrong one.
And activism works. In its story about the president's aborted plan to offer Social Security cuts in his 2011 State of the Union address, the Wall Street Journal also explained why it didn’t happen: “The decision to hold off was made as the White House came under pressure from Democrats and liberal interest groups who oppose any cuts to Social Security benefits.”
Those groups were representing the view of a majority of Americans across the political spectrum. For some publications the American people are nothing more than an “interest group.”
The public hates Social Security cuts and wants to expand it instead.
Speaking of the people: You can’t swing a dead Schrödinger’s cat nowadays without hitting a citizen who’s against benefit cuts. Members of Congress returning home this summer faced public pushback to potential cuts, including that of a woman who broke down and wept in a town hall meeting with Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.
A recent poll by the National Academy for Social Insurance (NASI) reinforced and expanded upon earlier poll findings when it showed that, by large majorities, Americans would rather raise taxes – including on themselves – in order to expand Social Security’s benefits.
That position was supported by Americans all across the political spectrum, including 74 percent of Republicans.
More politicians are signing on to the pro-Social Security team.
Probably as a result, politicians are getting the message. The “Grayson/Takano letter,” by Reps. Alan Grayson, D-Fla., and Mark Takano, D-Calif., calls on members of Congress to pledge that they’ll vote against any budget that contains cuts to Social Security. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, unlike House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, has been unequivocal so far in his opposition to cuts.
Sens. Tom Harkin, Mark Begich and Bernie Sanders have each introduced bills to protect and strengthen Social Security. And more politicians are signing on every day.
Republicans are still crazy.
Congressional Republicans are still so extreme and disorganized that it’s not clear they can get it together to accept any bargain, “grand” or otherwise.
So there’s that.
You can do something about it.
You can sign this petition to show your support for the Grayson/Takano letter. (Nearly 300,000 people already have.) You can sign the “Social Security birthday card.” You can write to your elected officials in Congress and the White House, and you can stay informed on this issue.
Social Security needs to be expanded, not cut. Support for expanding it, once considered a “fringe” position, is growing. Now senators are publicly supporting it, polls show it’s the popular position, and op-eds sing its praises.
So can you. There will be plenty of opportunities to support the effort in the weeks and months to come. But whatever you do, don’t get complacent. There will be time to relax – and celebrate – after Social Security's been protected and expanded.