With less than two weeks left before the midterm elections, voters still have little idea what Democrats will do if they take control of Congress. They’ve showcased a few modest agenda items, like an increased minimum wage and more funding for higher education. Charles Rangel (D., N.Y.), the prospective Ways and Means Chairman, bristles at suggestions that he’ll use his gavel to raise taxes. But it’s a safe bet that he won’t take action to extend the Bush tax cuts — which means, sooner or later, voters can expect their taxes to rise if the Democrats are in charge.
Rep. Rangel has been clearer about his agenda for Social Security — it’s an agenda of inaction. A nonpartisan group, For Our Grandchildren
, recently asked members of Congress and candidates to sign a pledge committing to working to fix Social Security’s serious financial problems. The letter specifies that signing the pledge doesn’t commit them to supporting any particular reform option, but simply “demonstrates your commitment to secure Social Security for future generations.” It insists that to reach bipartisan agreement, “all options must be on the table.”
The innocuous language is similar to congressional resolutions celebrating Little League champions or commending the Dairy Industry. It should draw unanimous support. But Rep. Rangel seemingly sees any mention of Social Security as a chance to score political points. Rangel, along with Rep. Sandy Levin (D., Mich.), wrote his Democratic colleagues urging them not to sign the letter. Their reasoning: So long as personal accounts remain “on the table,” Democrats should refuse to talk about solving Social Security’s problems.
For Our Grandchildren does have a clear record of supporting the incorporation of private accounts into Social Security; they also oppose using tax increases as the primary method of fixing Social Security’s financial short fall. Both options deserve a fair hearing. The group recognizes that there is no consensus among policymakers or the public on how to fix Social Security, which is why they are now trying simply to restart the debate and to encourage policymakers to take the issue seriously.
Yet the Democratic leadership isn’t willing to take Social Security reform seriously. Democratic leaders have been clear only about what they oppose: they oppose any measures that would give individuals ownership of the money that’s supposed to be saved for their retirement through Social Security. In other words, they vehemently oppose options offered by such right-wing stalwarts as Senator Bob Kerrey (D., Kan.) and the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D., N.Y.), both of whom proposed incorporating personal investment into Social Security. Even President Clinton wanted to create personal accounts for all Americans, although he proposed using additional tax revenue to do so. Would President Clinton’s plan also have to be off the table before Democrats would be willing to engage in debate?
Democrats have failed to offer a proposal of their own that would fix what countless commissions and nonpartisan experts agree are Social Security’s significant problems. During this congress, one Democratic congressman, Rep. Wexler of Florida, did offer a serious plan to address Social Security’s financial shortfall. He proposed enormous tax increases on working Americans. Serious Social Security reformers — even though they vehemently disagreed with his specific tack — applauded Rep. Wexler for offering a plan. They recognize the importance of getting more voices engaged in the discussion about Social Security’s future.
Democratic leaders had a different reaction: they were furious that Wexler offered a plan. They didn’t disagree with his approach necessarily, but knew that the American public would recoil from the prospects of draconian tax increases.
It’s much easier for Democrats simply to criticize all reform proposals. After all, Social Security faces a $13 trillion shortfall — the system owes trillions more in benefits than it has in prospective revenues. There’s no magical way to fix a problem of such magnitude without requiring sacrifices from someone. Any reform proposal will be an easy target for critics, and Democrats have certainly taken the easy route. All they do is criticize reformers and talk about protecting the existing Social Security system, ignoring the reality that it’s headed off the proverbial cliff.
This latest refusal to engage in a real Social Security debate is an ominous sign of what we can expect from a Democratic congress. Social Security’s problems can be ignored, but not for long. With each day that passes, more and more baby boomers retire. The demographic crunch that jeopardizes Social Security creeps closer. Reform becomes more difficult with each passing day.
In 2005, President Bush made an admirable attempt to advance bipartisan Social Security reform. Congress failed to embrace the effort and the momentum stalled. It’s one of the Republican Congress’s many missed opportunities to solve a serious domestic policy problem. Unfortunately, if Chairman Rangel’s failure to sign the For Our Grandchildren pledge is any indication, we can only expect worse from a Democratic majority.
— Carrie Lukas is the vice president for policy and economics at the Independent Women’s Forum and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Women, Sex, and Feminism.