On Social Security, Reid Goes to Bat for Status Quo

by Andrew Stiles

With House Republicans poised to address entitlements in their 2012 budget — to be released in early April — and the so-called “Gang of Six” locked in negotiations over how to restore fiscal sanity to the federal budget, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.) is ramping up his so-called “defense” of Social Security.

Reid led a rally in the Capitol on Monday urging lawmakers to “back off” the country’s largest entitlement program, accounting for roughly one-fifth of the federal budget. Of course, by “cuts” he really means “any changes whatsoever,” even modest reforms to ensure the program’s long-term survival. In addition to being wedded to the (false) claim that Social Security does not contribute to the country’s fiscal problems, Reid is utterly nonplussed by the program’s looming insolvency (in 2037) — if nothing is done to reform the program before then, recipients will have their benefits automatically cut by 25 percent. That doesn’t seem to bother Reid — he told rally-goers the very notion that Social Security is going bankrupt is “an outright lie.” In fact, Reid has said he’s not willing to discuss any changes to Social Security until “two decades from now.”

Reid’s stance puts him at odds with not only a majority of Republicans, but also with members of his own party. Moderate Democrats in the House like Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D., Md.) and Chris Van Hollen (D., Md.), ranking member on the House Budget Committee, have acknowledged that Social Security needs fixing and have spoken out in favor of reform, as have several of Reid’s colleagues in the Senate. Even Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.), up for reelection in 2012 (in Florida!) has expressed a willingness to consider reforms to Social Security.

Meanwhile, the four Senate representatives who served on President Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission — Tom Coburn (R., Okla.), Mike Crapo (R., Idaho), Kent Conrad (D., N.D.), and Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) — have teamed up with Sens. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.) and Mark Warner (D., Va.) to try and negotiated a long-term budget compromise based on the commission’s recommendations, which include reforms to Social Security such as raising the retirement age to 69 by the year 2075 and means testing of benefits.

Reid has a potentially critical ally in Durbin, who has come under intense pressure from the likes of Sen. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) to eschew the the commission’s “everything on the table” approach by leaving Social Security untouched. Durbin recently told National Review Online that including Social Security reform as part of a broad budget resolution would inhibit their ability to 60 votes in the Senate. “I’ve said to them, ‘We can stand by our guns and put it in and end up with 30 people instead of 60 supporting what we’re doing,’ but I don’t want to see that happen,” he says. “I’ve received a lot of expressions of concern in the Democratic caucus about including Social Security reform. Now, whether we can find a way to bridge that and resolve it, I can’t say, but we’re working on it.”

Sens. Tom Harkin (D., Iowa), Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), Al Franken (D., Minn.), and Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) also appeared at Monday’s rally, which had an air of religious revival to it that bordered on surreal. It seemed at times like a conservative parody of what a liberal rally to “save” Social Security might look like. For instance: the testimony on the effects of Social Security on the LGBT community. At one point, Harkin proudly described the way his father kept three portraits prominently displayed in the family home — one of Jesus, one of the Pope, and one of Social Security architect FDR.

Harkin, like Reid, insisted that any changes to the program should be off limits. Actually, he did have one idea. Instead of controlling costs through lasting structural reform, he suggested that Congress simply cover the shortfall with higher taxes on the wealthy. “Raise the cap!” Harkin yelled. (Or was it “Raise the tax?”) Either way, the crowd soon joined in, chanting loudly in unison, and loving it.

This was exactly the sort of reaction feared by deficit commission co-chairs Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. “There plenty of people in this city who hope and pray we don’t do anything to Social Security,” Simpson said recently at a Capitol Hill press conference. “The word is solvency, it doesn’t have anything to do with cutting out old ladies or old men, torturing children or throwing bed pans out of hospitals, it has to do with taking a public system that people are truly dependent on and making it solvent so it doesn’t go broke.”

Below is a video of Bowles and Simpson testifying before the Senate Budget Committee. They are being questioned by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) who has his own personal account of how Social Security helped his family (Democrats aren’t the only ones!). However, Graham doesn’t exactly see eye to eye with his Democratic colleagues on this issue. Here he is pointing out that not only is fixing Social Security an imperative step to take on the road to fiscal sanity, but the reforms required to achieve long-term solvency are actually quite simple and their effects quite minimal:

Graham: Can you imagine a budget being generated by a Republican or Democrat that doesn’t have meaningful entitlement reform, and that being a serious effort to solve our financial difficulties?

Bowles: No.

Graham: Can you imagine any scenario where we can save Social Security from impending massive cuts or any entitlement program without adjusting the age of eligibility?

Simpson: I think it’s impossible.

Graham: Can you imagine a scenario of saving Social Security from bankruptcy or major cuts without some form of means testing of benefits?

Bowles: Arithmetically you can you do it, but it’s not what we would recommend.

Graham: Would both of you urge congress to take up Social Security reform as part of this effort to bring about fiscal sanity?

Bowles: Absolutely, unequivocally yes.

Simpson: Got to.

Harry Reid: “Get back to me in 20 years.”

The Corner

The one and only.