Playing Chicken with Seniors

Member Group : Jerry Shenk

(This article first appeared in the [i]American Thinker[ei])

Last February, President Obama named Clinton White House staffer Erskine Bowles and former Republican senator Alan Simpson to co-chair a bipartisan commission to address the federal budget deficit and the coming crisis in entitlement costs. Recently, the two men announced proposals to limit the national debt to a more manageable level of gross domestic product and cut the budget deficit significantly.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi lost no time in declaring the Bowles-Simpson Plan "simply unacceptable." She, along with most of her Democratic colleagues, opposes considering the modest modifications in Social Security the Plan suggests: increasing the retirement age and reducing benefits for higher earners.

Pelosi and the Democrats will have far more principled company in opposing the latter change, even though it would make Social Security more progressive by targeting the neediest qualifying recipients. Means-testing Social Security would turn a program designed to be an individual tax-funded social safety net into a welfare plan. Many proud seniors who would qualify under proposed guidelines, but who never accepted social welfare while employed, will surely object to a means-based formula for being "awarded" a benefit they paid to receive.

Democrats have been playing games with Social Security for decades, both in their use of the issue itself and their misuse of its benefits.

As voters saw once again in this year’s national election campaign season, the Democrats’ default setting for going negative inevitably includes the charge that Republicans will destroy Social Security. Democrats have played the Social Security card so many times over so many years that it’s no longer trump.

That charge was leveled against Republican candidates all over the country this year. Democrats would have us believe that black-hearted Republicans are willing to sacrifice the welfare and futures of their own loved ones and friends for some ambiguous political benefit. American voters didn’t buy it this time.

Fairly or not, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a Democratic Party icon, is credited with benefitting generations of American seniors by enacting Social Security in the 1930s. It makes no difference what one thinks of the wisdom or effectiveness of the Social Security System — it is now an American institution.

Roosevelt’s ideological heirs in the modern Democratic Party deserve some credit, too, but their legacy will not be remembered as kindly as FDR’s. Washington Democrats are the only identifiable group of politicians who actually have damaged the Social Security safety net they claim to defend.

Consider the impact Democrats have had on Social Security:

• Democratic President Lyndon Johnson and a Democrat-controlled House and Senate took Social Security from the independent "Trust Fund" and put FICA payroll tax receipts into the general fund so that Congress could spend it on other "stuff," leaving American seniors drawers full of IOUs.
• Democratic President Jimmy Carter and a Democratic Congress voted to give Social Security annuity payments to immigrants who had not paid into the system.
• A Democratic Congress, with Democratic Vice President Al Gore casting the tie-breaking vote in the Senate, started taxing Social Security annuities in 1993 as part of one of the largest tax increases in American history. The tax increase was signed by Democratic President Bill Clinton.

So Democrats, after violating the original Social Security contract with Americans, adding unvested recipients and taxing benefits supposedly made available through payroll taxes, want you to believe that Republicans will take away seniors’ Social Security. It would be laughable if it weren’t so dishonest and sad.

It’s difficult to imagine how Republicans could do more damage to Social Security than the Democrats have already done.

Younger workers need not be actuaries or accountants to understand that if left unchanged, the Social Security for which they are being taxed in record amounts will not be available to them upon retirement.

The irony of featuring Social Security in campaign material this year was compounded by what didn’t appear in Democratic ads. Democrats avoided mentioning nearly all of the hugely unpopular programs for which they could legitimately claim responsibility. The near-two-year deluge of legislative excesses, inanities, and boondoggles included a massive, unsuccessful stimulus bill; auto industry union bailouts; a health care takeover; and budget resolutions that assume more than a decade of unsustainable trillion-dollar deficits annually. In addition to threatening the health, welfare, and security of America, these programs all steal from current and future generations, penalize seniors, or do both.

Democrats were made to answer for much this year. We can only hope that the immorality of the charges they made about Social Security and the dishonesty they employed while begging for votes were among the things for which they were punished.

Because political careerists don’t invent or produce useful products, provide commercial services, create wealth, or contribute in positive ways to the American economy, the opportunities for career politicians to create a lasting positive legacy are limited. If they wish history to be kind to them, if they want to be remembered for a lasting solution to a serious problem rather than merely for self-serving demagoguery, departing congressional Democrats have a chance to make things right by putting the next Congress on a safe path to protecting the viability of a program on which many have come to rely. In the remaining days of the lame duck session, Democrats in Washington can begin an honest dialogue and launch a serious attempt to solve the crisis that Social Security has become.

Jerry Shenk is co-editor of the Rebuilding America, Federalist Papers 2 website©: E-mail: [email protected]