After news broke that, through what’s known as a “Totalization Agreement,” the State Department was brokering a deal to give up to $345 billion — or more — in Social Security benefits to illegal aliens from Mexico, Consular Affairs (CA) chief Maura Harty was furious. Not because the NR story (“Illegal But Paid,” January 27 issue) wasn’t accurate, but because it was.
Harty lashed out at CA staff members, declaring that the “leak” at State was a “traitor.” (NR may or may not have had a State Department source, and the story itself did not specify one way or the other.) After reminding them that “leaks” could see their salaries cut or lose their jobs, Harty instructed CA staffers to read State’s “Mission Statement.”
But when you actually look at the statement, it’s not clear why Harty believes a potential “leak” at State would be a “traitor.” Of the mission’s five core values — loyalty, character, service, accountability, and community — State itself would seem to have violated at least two in its underhanded dealings with the Mexican government on the Totalization Agreement. Take loyalty, for starters — defined as “Commitment to the United States and the American people.” How is a deal to divert $345 billion, over the next two decades, away from Social Security and into the pockets of illegal aliens an act of “commitment to the United States and the American people”?
When White House officials learned the scope of the Totalization Agreement (“totalization” is government-speak for combining or “totalizing” the Social Security taxes paid by individuals into the U.S.’s and a foreign country’s respective systems to create a single, harmonized retirement payment), the eye-popping price tag caught many off guard. Explains one senior GOP congressional staffer: “The White House thought this was a low-cost favor to get in Vicente Fox’s good graces.” According to people familiar with the negotiations, officials at State knew illegal aliens would be covered by the deal — and they also knew that the White House didn’t know. Which brings us to “character,” which State’s mission statement defines as “Maintenance of high ethical standards and integrity.”
Harty’s temper may be partly a result of the suddenly cloudy prospects for enactment of the Totalization Agreement — at least as it was structured earlier this month. Government investigators and number crunchers are already researching the implications of any potential accord — and one group is looking into why officials at State and the Social Security Administration (SSA) have consistently mischaracterized and understated the progress of talks with Mexico.
At the request of the House Budget Committee, the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) is going to calculate the true costs of a Totalization Agreement with Mexico — with and without illegal aliens. If the agreement is modeled after the 20 that are already in place (mostly with European nations), then only those people legally residing and working in the United States would be covered — meaning the cost would be relatively low. But if illegal aliens are included — there are anywhere from 7 to 11 million in the U.S., about half of which are from Mexico — then the deal’s price tag skyrockets to hundreds of billions of dollars.
What may have Harty still more nervous, though, is the investigation underway at the General Accounting Office (GAO). The GAO study — requested by the chairman of the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee, Clay Shaw — will examine a whole host of issues, including the true status of negotiations and how the accord with Mexico came to be so different from analogous agreements with other countries. GAO investigators are providing Chairman Shaw’s staff with monthly updates, and the next is due by the end of February. The investigation may take awhile. When Shaw’s staff asked for the data and any other material used to justify the original, low-cost estimates, SSA officials could not provide any documents to substantiate the figures.
Assuming State and SSA stick to their original timeline on the Totalization Agreement, CBO and GAO officials will be working against the clock. An internal SSA memo obtained by NR shows that officials there believed negotiations could be completely finalized by February, which would have brought the process to the final step, with State submitting the accord to Congress. But that’s where things get tricky: Congress doesn’t have to approve the Totalization Agreement for it to take effect; so long as Congress doesn’t affirmatively vote it down, the Agreement becomes law. Sources report that many officials at State, SSA, and the White House are starting to get cold feet.
If the Totalization Agreement with Mexico is derailed, Harty could wind up the biggest loser. As a senior State official notes: “Maura badly wanted a ‘deliverable’ here — something she could give the White House to curry favor with Karl Rove and company while she was still new on the job. But it looks like that really is not going to happen now.”
— Joel Mowbray is an NRO contributor and a Townhall.com columnist.