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Social Security: It’s Not Broke, So Please Don’t “Fix” It

In Legislation Today on November 30, 2009 at 3:52 pm

One of the country’s most successful government programs, Social Security, will turn 75 in 2010. There will be fireworks, speeches, parades, and general revelry, right? Well, perhaps not—at least, not if some in Congress have their way.

In fact, the program that transformed American society with retirement pensions, unemployment insurance, survivors’ benefits, and a host of other essential services is about to undergo yet another attack.

In the name of deficit reduction, not itself a bad goal, there’s a proposal to create a fast-track commission to study so-called entitlement programs. What does “fast-track” mean? It means discussion is limited and amendments are prohibited, creating an undemocratic process that’s hidden from you and me.

And, if a fast-track commission is created, the deck will be stacked against Social Security.

The proposal submitted by Senators Conrad (D-ND) and Gregg (R-NH)—and a similar one submitted in the House by Representatives Cooper (D-TN) and Wolf (R-VA)—calls for a commission of eight Republicans and eight Democrats, with two of the Democrats nominated by the Administration.

The vast majority of elected Republicans are on record—historically since that first vote in 1935 and as recently as the privatization attempt of 2005—as favoring the reduction or even slashing of Social Security benefits. So the commission starts off with eight members ready to start cutting.

Now add the two Democrats pushing for the fast-track commission, Conrad and Cooper, to the “cut benefits” ranks. That makes 10 out of 16 commission members likely willing to make cuts. Include the fact that the Obama Administration is anxious to do something to show resolve in cutting the deficit, and you may reach a supermajority of 12 of the 16 commissioners coming to the table with scalpels sharpened. Those who would fight for Social Security are rendered powerless before the process even begins.

Such a hasty and undemocratic procedure would be unprecedented. Since 1935, Social Security legislation has always had the benefit of full hearings before the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, executive sessions giving all members a chance to offer amendments, and unlimited debate and opportunity for amendments in the Senate and the House of Representatives.

It just doesn’t make sense to attack Social Security in the name of deficit reduction; it’s not part of the deficit. The 2009 Annual Report of the Board of Trustees, published May 12, 2009, stated that Social Security ran a surplus of $180 billion last year with a reserve of $2.4 trillion. The Congressional Budget Office, in its August 2009 forecast, said that full benefits can continue to be paid until 2043. There is ample time for Congress to review options for adjusting the Social Security system through the usual legislative process. There is time to create a well-rounded, balanced commission that recruits members from business, labor, and the general public.

But Social Security’s opponents have managed to convince too many Americans that the program is wasteful and in a terminal state. Unwarranted panic allows Social Security’s opponents to stage this stealth attack.

As the program’s 75th anniversary approaches, it’s helpful to recall the reason for Social Security’s original enactment. Senator Snowe wrote last June in a letter to the Frances Perkins Center: “As the chief champion and architect of the Social Security Act, which established not only Social Security but also the Unemployment Insurance program, Frances Perkins demonstrated unparalleled vision, courage, and determination that provided us with some of the strongest federal programs ever…”

Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins herself said in a radio speech in 1935, “The process of recovery is not a simple one. We cannot be satisfied merely with makeshift arrangements, which will tide us over the present emergencies. We must devise plans that will not merely alleviate the ills of today, but will prevent, as far as it is humanly possible to do so, their recurrence in the future.”

That goal has been met. Today, as we struggle to rise from the depths of the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression, we can thank Social Security for helping to save our economy from collapse. While trillions of dollars were lost in 401(k) and other pension accounts, Social Security remained dependable. Its guaranteed payments helped to fill in for lost earnings. The purchasing power those benefits brought to neighborhoods are keeping stores busy and people employed.

Chances are you know someone receiving Social Security benefits. More than 52 million people will get monthly benefits this year. Wounded soldiers and their spouses and children receive Social Security benefits, as well as the families of soldiers who have died for their country. Social Security continues to provide benefits to the families of those who lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks, and millions of others whose families met unthinkable calamity.

The mystery is, in the face of proof that the Social Security system benefits all of us, why would Congress consider reducing it? Instead, let’s get out the drums and bugles and celebrate this great American tradition. It deserves our support, not death by a thousand cuts.

Columbia’s Butler Library showcases Perkins exhibit

In Events on November 11, 2009 at 5:24 pm

This is a condensed version of notes written by Tomlin Perkins Coggeshall regarding his trip to New York last week.

Thursday was a full day, with two big events and some smaller ones interspersed. First was a talk by Kirstin at the Cosmopolitan Club, a private women’s club in New York, to which my grandmother belonged for many years.

When we arrived at the Cos Club, we were greeted by Beth Goehring and Susan Ciaccio, the two women on the Library Committee who had organized the event, who were very nice and pleased that we all came in spite of the fact that their event had a waiting list of over 40 people!

Kirstin’s talk at the Cos Club was in the library on the sixth floor, which was new territory for me. As a child, I had never been allowed out of the lobby because this was strictly a women’s club. So I felt as if I was eating forbidden fruit much of the time. Kirstin gave an inspiring talk, including some of FP’s own rules of the road for being effective in life in general, and as a lobbyist in particular, which got my attention.

We gave out a good number of brochures and invited people to sign our web site’s guest book if they’d like to be on our mailing list. I only missed the first group that got onto the small elevator before Chris Breiseth gently nudged me toward the brochures (thank you, Chris!), which I was forgetting in the chitchat after Kirstin’s talk was over.

The Cos Club had thoughtfully hired a serious SUV to whisk her to Columbia and it happened to be plenty big enough to comfortably seat all of us (my partner Christopher, Chris Breiseth, Kirstin Downey, Barb Burt, and me). We settled in and Kirstin and Chris wasted no time in diving into rapid fire conversation about various people who could speak at various events and who so and so was and what they had done and why they were significant and so on. It was obviously over my head but Barb did her best to keep up by taking notes on her iPod and the rest is still in Chris and Kirstin’s heads, so all’s well. We soon arrived at the gates of the Columbia campus at 116th street and headed for the Butler Library.

Jenny Lee, who couldn’t have been a nicer, kinder, more intelligent, and thoughtful person greeted us on the ground floor and helped us get past the guard. There was a little time to set up in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Jenny’s domain, on the sixth floor (yes, another sixth floor happening) where the exhibit was so nicely installed (by Jenny) and where the reception would be held. There was small room off to one side where Jenny had provided a computer projector and we hooked up my little Apple laptop to show images of The Brick House and FP’s Perkins family lands.

Kirstin’s talk, in a room on the ground floor, was very good. This one focused a bit more on FP’s efforts to ease immigration rules so that more refugees from Nazi Germany could be brought into this country. Very well presented and received, bravo Kirstin!

Afterwards, we went back up to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library (sixth floor) for the reception. Penny Colman (another FP biographer) was there and very enthusiastic, full of good ideas.

The Mount Holyoke College NYC network had put the word out and so a number of MHC grads were there, which was good to see. I got pigeon-holed by a nice man who had been the son of the superintendent of the building that Margaret Poole lived in in NYC where FP spent a lot of time as a sort of permanent guest when I was a small boy. I remember visiting that apartment often and have clear memories of times there.

We went our separate ways after the reception (some of us had a long way to go; Kirstin arrived home in Virginia at 3:00am!) with a warm feeling of togetherness, common purpose, and FP’s amazing significance housed so securely with Jenny on the sixth floor.

Here are some photos from the Butler Library exhibit: