The Corner

Economy & Business

Of Course Social Security Reform Ideas Have to Be Crafted ‘Behind Closed Doors’

(Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Iowa senator Joni Ernst is going to get some grief for her recent statement, “I do think, as various parties and members of Congress, we need to sit down behind closed doors so we’re not being scrutinized by this group or the other, and just have an open and honest conversation about what are some of the ideas that we have for maintaining Social Security in the future.”

Her Democratic opponents are going to exclaim that Ernst wants to cook up some sort of secret plan to destroy Social Security, she wants to push granny off a cliff, blah blah blah. As if the entire legislation could be kept secret until after it passed. (“We have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it.”)

Generally, when a politician is asked to confront a difficult and thorny problem, the easiest and laziest way to dodge giving a real answer is to promise to appoint “a blue-ribbon commission” — usually a panel of experts and retired lawmakers who aren’t up for reelection anywhere who can study the problem and come up with the best solution, which may well be an unpopular solution. But an issue like Social Security and entitlement spending might be the one kind of circumstance where the blue-ribbon commission approach makes sense.

The Social Security Trust Fund is on pace to be depleted by 2034. While that year sounds like a science fiction movie, it’s fifteen years away.

There are only a few paths ahead on ensuring that Social Security has enough money to cover expenses as more and more Americans retire and live longer. One option is to raise taxes; that’s unpopular. Another option is to cut benefits; that’s unpopular, too. You could do both, which is doubly unpopular. You could have people start putting their Social Security money into personal individual investment accounts, but that involves an element of risk and the potential of losing a chunk of your retirement savings in a bad year is unpopular. Or you could do nothing, and watch the problem get worse, which lawmakers have determined is the least unpopular option.

The blue-ribbon commission has one strength that elected lawmakers don’t have: They can tell the public uncomfortable truths, without the risk of losing their jobs over it.

Everybody knows solving the problem will require doing something unpopular. In a situation like this, the blue-ribbon commission can provide a little bit of political cover to lawmakers as they contemplate the recommendation. Lawmakers can heave a dramatic sigh and declare that, “no, not all of these proposals are popular, but the distinguished Oscar-Mayer Commission says they are absolutely necessary to solve this problem.”

And bipartisan commissions usually study and craft their proposals behind closed doors before a big public unveiling of their report.

This doesn’t always work; President George W. Bush had a bipartisan commission, co-chaired by former senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D., N.Y.) and Richard Parsons, chief operating officer of AOL/Time Warner. The commission unveiled their recommendations . . . and it went nowhere. Nobody on Capitol Hill was interested in making a dramatic change to Social Security, and other issues like the war on terror, Iraq, and Katrina overtook the agenda. The Obama administration had the Simpson-Bowles National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform . . . and those proposals also went nowhere. Any significant entitlement reform will require leaders in both parties to hold hands and make the leap together, which is exceptionally difficult in a time of negative polarization.

Coming up with a package of reforms “behind closed doors” doesn’t sound all that appealing, but coming up with a package of reforms out in the open hasn’t worked either. As the article linked above notes, the Democratic SuperPACs and liberal groups attacking her are illustrating her point: Any lawmaker who even mentions the possibility of making any changes to Social Security will immediately get accused of planning to “cut our benefits in secret.” No option can even be discussed, because the scare tactics get used immediately. This is why nothing gets done . . . which is why getting anything done will require coming up with a proposal behind closed doors!

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