The Blog of the Frances Perkins Center

Nothing to fear but… the deficit commission

In Legislation Today on March 5, 2010 at 11:58 am

Yesterday marked the anniversary of Frances Perkins’s swearing in as the first female Cabinet secretary in U.S. history. March 4, 1933 was also the date of FDR’s first inauguration, during which he uttered the famous line, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

If they were alive today, FDR and Frances Perkins would find lots to fear in the news coming out of Washington regarding Social Security, the centerpiece of the New Deal programs they instituted, improving life for millions of Americans.

Spurred on by fiscal hawks in the Congress, President Obama has created a commission to look at ways of reducing the deficit. This would not be a problem, except that (1) many economists feel that the overriding issue today is the need for increased stimulus spending to put people back to work — thus increasing the tax base and lessening the deficit, and (2) the forces behind the push for the commission have painted a bulls-eye on Social Security, a program they have been trying to diminish or even destroy for decades.


So far, President Obama has appointed as co-chair retired Republican Senator Alan Simpson, who famously asked, “How did we get to a point in America where you get to a certain age in life, regardless of net worth or income, and you’re ‘entitled’?” (Duh, because you’ve paid Social Security taxes all your working life, Senator…) In 1995, then-Senator Simpson pushed for cuts to Social Security and attacked AARP, calling seniors, “greedy geezers.”

Great pick, President Obama. Not. Especially not, considering that Simpson, retired and not seeking reelection, won’t care about political pressure from voters. How nice to reside in an ivory tower and make policy affecting those “greedy geezers.”

Simpson’s co-chair is former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, labeled by BusinessWeek in 1998 as “corporate America’s friend in the White House.” He doesn’t have the anti-Social Security record of Simpson, but he’s not known as a particular friend, either.

Obama’s four other appointees are:
-SEIU President Andy Stern (who will stand strong to defent Social Security benefits)
-Honeywell Chairman, President, and CEO Dave Cote (Republican)
-former Young & Rubicam Brands Chairman and CEO Ann Fudge (major Obama Campaign fundraiser)
-Brookings Senior Fellow Alice Rivlin Stern, who has already suggested the need to raise the retirement age. (Sure, let’s keep those 65+ in the job market and make it even harder for young people to enter the workforce…)


Senate President Harry Reid named Senators Durbin, Conrad, and Baucus to the commission. Durbin will be an advocate for Social Security; Conrad is already known as a foe, having initiated with Senator Gregg the idea for the commission. And Baucus, although ostensibly a supporter of Social Security, is a wild-card.


The Republican leadership in the House and Senate each get to choose three members, as do the Democrats, bringing the total to 18. The commission’s rules require 14 out of 18 possible votes to pass any recommendations. That means Social Security needs at least five staunch defenders to block attempts to raise the retirement age or lower Social Security benefits through other means.

So, the known Social Security saviors at this point are Stern and Durbin out of the nine appointees so far. It’s likely that all the Republicans will be anti-Social Security. That leaves Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s choices as the only additional three who could reliably be counted as defenders against the onslaught.


Sixty national organizations signed a letter opposing the idea of a commission. AARP issued its own letter of opposition. The American people overwhelmingly support Social Security, though they’ve been fed enough lies to believe that it’s under severe financial stress and is contributing to the deficit. It isn’t and it isn’t.

How ironic that on the 75th anniversary of Social Security, during an economic crisis in which this incredibly successful public program has saved millions from destitution, our president would allow it to be the scapegoat for years of unbridled spending in the form of tax cuts for the wealthy and unnecessary war adventures.

Is the deficit a problem? Yes. Is Social Security to blame. No. The fact is, Social Security has helped provide a baseline of income to people who live in every neighborhood in America. How big would the deficit be without it?

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