Economy  
comments_image Comments

Obama's Crazy Plan To Cut Social Security

Is Obama's new "debt commission" about to savage Social Security for no reason? Sure looks like it.
 
 
Share
 
 
 
 

President Obama and the leadership in Congress have delegated enormous, unaccountable authority to 18 unrepresentative, inordinately wealthy individuals. The 18 individuals are meeting regularly, in secret, behind closed doors, until safely beyond this year’s mid-term election. If they reach agreement, their proposal will be voted on in December by a lame duck Congress, without the benefit of open hearings and deliberations in the pertinent committees and without the opportunity for open debate and amendment on the floors of the House and Senate. Despite the speed and lack of accountability, the legislation will affect, in substantial ways, every man, woman, and child in this nation.

Who are these powerful people and what are their views?

They are the members of President Obama’s newly-formed National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform. They lack racial and gender diversity, and more importantly, they lack diversity of opinion. Their mantra is that “everything is on the table,” but their one member who has any expertise with respect to defense spending, for instance, is the CEO of a major defense contractor that devotes millions of dollars each year to lobby Congress for more defense spending.

“Everything is on the table,” they say, but the members appointed by the minority leaders in the House and Senate have made clear that they do not believe that the problems in this country stem from under-taxing, rather from overspending. The one area that they seem to be in agreement on -- and which they are in fact, focusing on like a laser -- involves programs that help the middle class and those Americans who are the most vulnerable. Even liberal Senator Richard Durbin has stated, “the bleeding-heart liberals… have to…make real sacrifices to strengthen our nation.”

The co-chairs, in particular, seem to have a clear agenda. Even before the commission held its first meeting, Erskine Bowles went on record before the North Carolina Bankers' Association saying that if the Commission doesn't "mess with Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security ... America is going to be a second-rate power" in his lifetime. (And he is already 64!) Alan Simpson, known for giving ugly voice to harsh, ageist stereotypes, described the future of the fiscal commission: "It'll be a bloodbath. Let me tell you, everything that Bush and Clinton or Obama have suggested with regard to Social Security doesn't affect anyone over 60, and who are the people howling and bitching the most? The people over 60. This makes no sense. You've got to scrub out [of] the equation the AARP, the Committee for the Preservation of Social Security and Medicare, the Gray Panthers, the Pink Panther, the whatever. Those people are lying... [They] don't care a whit about their grandchildren...not a whit." (For more about Alan Simpson, see Trudy Lieberman in CRJ: More Words of Wisdom from Alan Simpson.)

We write to raise questions and encourage press inquiry now, before the commission reports, at which point its recommendations could be on track and moving fast. Here are a few angles to explore:

Q. Have the members of the Commission made up their minds, at least with respect to the broad outlines, making the whole exercise simply an effort by elected officials to escape political accountability?

Q.Why is the Commission apparently working so closely with billionaire Peter G. Peterson, who served in the Nixon administration and who has a clear ideological agenda?

Q.Mr. Peterson has been on a decades-long crusade against Social Security. The day after the first meeting of the commission, which focused heavily on the need to cut Social Security, the co-chairs and two other members of the commission participated in a Peterson event that reinforced the same message. A Peterson-funded foundation is supplying commission staff. And Peterson’s foundation is funding America Speaks to develop a series of high-profile town halls across the country to host “a national discussion to find common ground on tough choices about our federal budget.” (For more background about Mr. Peterson, see William Greider in the Nation on Looting Social Security -- Part 2.)

Q. Why the urgent focus on Social Security? In the past, Social Security has always been considered under the normal legislative process, with the opportunity for full amendments. According to the program’s actuaries, it is able to pay all benefits in full and on time for over a quarter of a century. Even its most diehard critics, who try mightily to convince the rest of us that the program is in crisis, can’t mount an argument that there is a problem for another five years or so. So what is the rush? What is the need for such an unaccountable, fast-tracked process when one has never been needed before? Why, in spite of the evidence that Social Security is working as intended and that there is growing need for the kind of broad and reliable protection provided under the program, is it being singled out by Bowles and Simpson and seemingly by the White House for a major trimming?

Q. The American public has stated in a number of polls that they prefer to increase the program’s revenue, even if it means them paying more, rather than reducing the benefits that are so vital to almost all its beneficiaries. (See, for example, this May 2005 Gallup Poll.) So why does the commission seem so determined to ignore the views of the American people, and insist that there must be benefit cuts?

Q. The members of the commission wrap themselves in the mantle of their children and grandchildren. Alan Simpson routinely says that he is a stalking horse for his grandchildren. This is good, but what about everyone else’s grandchildren? Especially those lacking privileged backgrounds; those more likely to need strong retirement, disability and survivorship protections as they grow and raise their own families and hopefully eventually reach retirement age? If these commissioners’ focus is on all grandchildren, shouldn’t they be more focused on investments today to ensure that their parents have good-paying jobs and that they can receive a first rate education? Why do they seem so intent on cutting the benefits of that future generation? As Simpson himself has made clear, he intends to spare today’s elderly, which means it is the benefits of the next generation which will be cut.

Q. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, are there efforts to buy off the press? Just in time for this commission, Mr. Peterson, not content to buy access, has now used his fortune to establish his own news service, so the story gets reported his way. The Fiscal Times is likely to be active in reporting about the commission. Given that Mr. Peterson’s son, Michael, has the power to hire and fire the two top editors, will its reporting be objective? Its first effort did not inspire confidence. (See Trudy Leiberman’s Dust up at the Washington Post and Richard Perez-Pena’s Sourcing of Article Awkward for Paper.)

At a time when the nation has near double-digit unemployment, when many responsible economists believe we could, without additional federal spending, experience a deeper recession, it is imperative for the press to ask the hard questions. Our elected officials should not be given a pass on an austerity approach that could have serious, long-ranging implications for all Americans, and particularly those most vulnerable. They have no one to protect them but an open, inquiring press.

Nancy J. Altman is the author of The Battle for Social Security.