The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

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.

  1. […] Security and Medicare in the name of reducing the deficit. (See this previous post, and this, and this.) A group of Senators has vowed to hold up an increase in the debt ceiling unless such a commission […]

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