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Against It Then, For It Now
Democrats have worn two faces when it comes to Social Security.


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Deroy Murdock

If Democratic hypocrisy on Social Security traded on Wall Street, President Bush could purchase shares and let the dividends finance his proposal for personal retirement accounts.

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“Social Security is the most successful program in the history of the world, and we’re going to protect it,” said Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid on April 10 on Face the Nation. “People depend on Social Security,” he declared two days later. “That’s the way it has been, and the way it should be, and we’re not going to allow that to change.”

But when President Reagan signed legislation in April 1983 to bring senators and representatives into Social Security, Harry Reid reacted like Harry Houdini. Reid tried to help congressmen escape history’s “most successful program.” H.R. 3589, which then-Rep. Reid introduced July 18, 1983, aimed “To repeal the recently enacted provisions providing for coverage of Federal employees under the old-age, survivors, and disability insurance program under Title II of the Social Security Act.”

In other words, Reid, along with several key congressional Democrats who extol Social Security for average Americans today, labored feverishly a generation ago to exclude themselves and other government employees from Uncle Sam’s biggest project. Having failed to throw off the rusted chains of Social Security, he now keeps other Americans shackled.

Last January, Sen. Paul Sarbanes (D., Md.) toasted Social Security as “a lifeline to a decent life.” But on March 23, 1983, he encountered a measure by Sen. Ted Stevens (R., Alaska). “My amendment excludes Federal employees entirely from the Social Security system,” Stevens bluntly told his colleagues. While the proposal failed 12-86, Sarbanes voted for it.

At an April 26 Capitol Hill rally, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer called Social Security “one of the most important programs this country has ever adopted.” But in 1983 the Maryland Democrat also tried to shield federal employees from the system. As the Washington Post’s Karlyn Barker reported March 3, 1983, then-Rep. Michael Barnes (D., Md.) and Hoyer “held their own meetings last week with members of the [Ways and Means] committee and the House leadership. They urged delaying inclusion of new federal workers [in Social Security] pending a study. They warned that the proposal could cost new hires, forced to contribute to two retirement systems, a quarter of their take home pay.”

Social Security “keeps our fathers and mothers from those darkening shadows of approaching night,” Montana’s Max Baucus, the Senate Finance Committee’s top Democrat, said March 4. On May 3, New York Rep. Charles Rangel, the House Ways and Means Committee’s ranking Democrat, called Social Security “a cushion to have your dignity, to have your pride, to be able not to have to depend on your children and grandchildren.” Here, again, these two latter-day Social Security stalwarts previously gave the system their cold shoulders.

The House considered language by then-Rep. Joseph Fisher (D., Va.) on October 26, 1977. “The purpose of my amendment is to strike the provisions requiring all Government employees and employees of nonprofit organizations to be covered by Social Security,” Fisher explained, adding: “Universal coverage is really back-door general revenue financing for Social Security.”

Then-congressman Baucus applauded. “There is much concern and confusion among my constituents concerning universal coverage,” he said on the House floor. “I can understand the fears of workers who would be affected,” he continued. “We must assure these workers that we are not using them to simply bail out the Social Security fund.”

Fisher’s amendment passed, 386 to 38, and congressmen and other government employees sidestepped Social Security for another seven years. Joining Baucus among the “ayes” were current Democratic senators (and then-House members) Daniel Akaka of Hawaii, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Tom Harkin of Iowa, and Barbara Mikulski of Maryland.

Beyond Rangel, today’s House Democrats who voted “aye” include Norman Dicks of Washington, John Dingell of Michigan, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, George Miller of California, John Murtha of Pennsylvania, James Oberstar of Minnesota, Nick Rahall of West Virginia, Ike Skelton of Missouri, and Henry Waxman of California.

“So what?” some might wonder. These votes are old news. But they are no older than a statement that modern-day Democrats invoke in which then-House candidate George W. Bush predicted Social Security would “go bust in 10 years unless there are some changes.”

“The president indicated in 1978 when he was running for Congress that he wanted to privatize not partially Social Security but all of Social Security,” Rep. Steny Hoyer told CNBC in April.

Bush “said in 1978 that Social Security would go bust in 1988 unless the system was [sic] privatized,” said Barbara Boxer (D., Calif.), the Senate’s very own snapping turtle, on Face the Nation March 6. “He was wrong then.”

Changes, indeed, came when the Alan Greenspan Commission “saved” Social Security in 1983, right before it faced serious cash problems, exactly as Bush warned. If Bush’s accurate 27-year-old remarks are fair game, so should be Democrats’ self-interested votes from that era.

Back then, Congressional Democrats considered Social Security perfect for their constituents, but beneath them and their bureaucratic pals. Despite their valiant efforts, however, they have been stuck inside of Uncle Sam’s pension paradise since 1984. This may explain their current mantra on Social Security: “No one here gets out alive!”

– New York commentator Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and an advisory board member of the Cato Institute Project on Social Security Choice.



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