Word to the Fiscal Commission: Hands off Social Security

A word of advice to the folks at the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform: it may be time to "slow your roll" as, we used to say where I come from. Based on their own admissions, and Alan Simpson's bedraggled look at the commission's surprise press conference to announce their "chairman's mark," it's clear the commission is in too big of a rush to do justice to what they admit is a huge job.

They could start by really making Social Security separate from deficit reduction — as the commission's co-chairs stressed that it is in their draft recommendations.

The commission has big plans for Social Security: a higher retirement age, lower cost of living increases, increasing the contribution ceiling, etc. No surprises there, but according to the co-chair's draft recommendations, the plan would not count Social Security savings toward deficit reduction.

The plan would reduce Social Security benefits to most future retirees — low-income people would get a higher benefit — and it would subject higher levels of income to payroll taxes to ensure Social Security’s solvency for at least the next 75 years.

But the plan would not count any savings from Social Security toward meeting the overall deficit-reduction goal set by Mr. Obama, reflecting the chairmen’s sensitivity to liberal critics who have complained that Social Security should be fixed only for its own sake, not to balance the nation’s books.

That sounds like a good place to start. If Social Security doesn't factor into the commission's goals of deficit reduction, then Social Security shouldn't be a part of the commission's report or anything else that comes out of the commission.

The fiscal commission could lighten its own load and more effectively focus their efforts "like a laser beam" on deficit reduction by adopting a simple rule for their proceedings and their real final recommendations: Hands off Social Security.

But it sounds like the commission wrapped up its work too early, and without meeting its goals, as Steve Benen points out.

But it's worth emphasizing a rather important detail: these recommendations are not the result of a commission consensus. On the contrary, they're reportedly included in a draft published by the commission's chairmen -- former Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, and former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson (R).

In other words, Simpson and Bowles have all kinds of ideas about raising the retirement age and cutting Medicare benefits, but that's not the collective judgment of the commission they've led.

At this point, the two chairs still hope to get the support of 14 of the 18 members, but that appears to be a stretch, and it's likely members won't even vote at all. One also assumes the chairs would also love the White House to embrace their document, but I'm guessing that's unlikely, too.

What's the rush, exactly? Whatever one thinks about the fiscal commission — the reasons for its creation, and whether deficit reduction should be a high priority or not — the job it has taken on is too big for a commission only created in February of this year to have all wrapped up in November. I understand the holidays are coming, and just about everyone wants a break from what's been an exhausting political year. But, seriously, isn't this too important to rush?

But the commission needs to go back to the drawing board. Social Security is too important to too many Americans to be tossed into the commission's basket when the draft report issued by the commission's chairmen (without a consensus from the panel) places Social Security outside the scope the fiscal commission's work. If we need to look at Social Security, it deserves more attention than the fiscal commission can really give it, anyway.

When you've bitten off more than you can chew, the solution is to spit some of it out. So, the commission should quietly remove Social Security from it's plate.

Then, perhaps they can start over, and this time really give the deficit it's full attention without the distraction of Social Security. America needs and deserves more than a rushed draft report; that is, if the deficit is important enough to rate more than the commission's unfinished work and the chairmen's draft proposals.

The commission needs to start again, with a narrow focus on deficit reduction and without the distraction of Social Security, and do the hard work of building a consensus and presenting solutions that all the members of the commission can stand behind.

Otherwise, what's the point of a panel that tries to do work outside its scope, without finishing the work it was intended to do in the first place?


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