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The Fight Over Social Security's Future Is On—But Which Side Is Obama On?

John Nichols

 by The Nation

The debate about the future of Social Security has opened, and how
progressives respond will decide whether the United States is a civil
society or a pirate state where the government's primary role is to take
from the poor and give to the rich.

So far, the response has been mixed. The signals from the Obama White
House are bad, with the president indicating openness to "compromises"
that would compromise the legacies of the New Deal, the Fair Deal and
the Great Society. In contrast, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, key
congressional Democrats, labor unions and activist groups are raising
all the right objections.

The spark for the debate was the release of a statement from the
co-chairs of the president's Fiscal Commission-the high-powered
committee charged by President Obama with developing strategies for
balancing budgets and addressing deficits and debts-that indicates they
are leaning toward implementing the sort of rigid austerity schemes that
would ruin the US economy.

The Commission is not due to make any serious proposals until
December, at the earliest. But the statement from former Wyoming Senator
Alan Simpson, a supposedly-sensible Republican, and former Clinton
White House chief-of-staff Erskine Bowles, a North Carolina Democrat who
tried without success to get elected to the Senate, suggests that the
commission has adopted the fraudulent calculus that says every federal
program is more of less equally wasteful, and thus equally "on the
table" for cutting. Those cuts, to their view, would begin with deep
cuts in Social Security benefits and a hike in the retirement age to 69.
Where would it end? The proposal by Simpson and Bowles to tear the
safety net gives Wall Street speculators precisely the opening they have
been seeking to make a grab for the biggest corporate-welfare payout
ever: privatization of Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid.

The White House response did not inspire confidence in the
administration's determination to maintain the commitments made by
Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

"The President will wait until the bipartisan fiscal commission
finishes its work before commenting. He respects the challenging task
that the Co-Chairs and the Commissioners are undertaking and wants to
give them space to work on it. These ideas, however, are only a step in
the process towards coming up with a set of recommendations and the
President looks forward to reviewing their final product early next
month," said White House spokesperson, Bill Burton.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee described the statement as
representative of the "weak, ‘I won't pick a fight on even the most
obvious of issues,' loser mentality that will be DISASTER for Democrats
if continued through 2012."

In contrast, the group pointed to Pelosi's response as "the type of bold fighting attitude Democrats will need to WIN in 2012."

"This proposal is simply unacceptable," said Pelosi.

"Any final proposal from the Commission should do what is right for
our children and grandchildren's economic security as well as for our
nation's fiscal security, and it must do what is right for our seniors,
who are counting on the bedrock promises of Social Security and
Medicare. And it must strengthen America's middle class families-under
siege for the last decade, and unable to withstand further encroachment
on their economic security."

Those were themes echoed by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who
said: "The chairmen of the Deficit Commission just told working
Americans to ‘Drop Dead.' Especially in these tough economic times, it
is unconscionable to be proposing cuts to the critical economic
lifelines for working people, Social Security and Medicare. Some people
are saying this plan is just a ‘starting point.' Let me be clear, it is
not. This deficit talk reeks of rank hypocrisy: The very people who
want to slash Social Security and Medicare spent this week clamoring for
more unpaid Bush tax cuts for millionaires."

"What we need to be focusing on now is the jobs deficit," Trumka
continued. "Working families already paid for Wall Street's party that
tanked our economy. If we actually want to address our economic
problems, we need to end tax breaks that send American jobs overseas and
invest in creating jobs by rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure and
green technologies."

Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Raúl M. Grijalva, also
focused on the need to scrap the Bush tax cuts. "Real budget reform must
begin by allowing the Bush-era tax cuts for the wealthiest two percent
of earners to expire, as they were always designed to do. This would
reduce the debt by at least $680 billion over the next 10 years,
according to the Department of the Treasury," he said. "The middle class
has already been hit extremely hard by the ongoing economic downturn
and the housing crisis. The last thing we should do is take more money
out of their pockets in the name of a conservative tax cut agenda that
favors the wealthy over the rest of us."

Grijalva was harsh in his criticism of the commission's approach.

"If the co-chairs of the deficit commission were dead set on gutting
Social Security and Medicare from the beginning, they could have saved
time and effort by releasing this proposal the day after the commission
was formed. Instead, we have waited through nine months of backroom
negotiations only to be told that the American people will have to
tighten their belts another notch while defense spending continues to
grow and corporate bonuses continue to expand," he said. "The path this
plan would set is not good for the public. Congress should be having a
realistic, productive conversation right now about how to reduce our
budget deficit and maintain a secure retirement system for those who
have earned it. Instead, we're debating a proposal from a commission
dedicated to cutting crucial social programs and reducing corporate and
upper-income taxes at the same time. This is not a recipe for a
healthier American economy."

US Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, promised a fight.

"The Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction plan is extremely disappointing
and something that should be vigorously opposed by the American people.
The huge increase in the national debt in recent years was caused by
two unpaid wars, tax breaks for the wealthy, a Medicare prescription
drug bill written by the pharmaceutical industry, and the Wall Street
bailout. Unlike Social Security, none of these proposals were paid for.
Not only has Social Security not contributed a dime to the deficit, it
has a $2.6 trillion surplus," argued Sanders.

"It is reprehensible to ask working people, including many who do
physically-demanding labor, to work until they are 69 years of age. It
also is totally impractical. As they compete for jobs with 25-year-olds,
many older workers will go unemployed and have virtually no income.
Frankly, there will not be too much demand within the construction
industry for 69-year-old bricklayers," explained Sanders. "Despite all
of the right-wing rhetoric, Social Security is not going bankrupt.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, Social Security can pay
every nickel owed to every eligible American for the next 29 years and
after that about 80 percent of benefits."

The senator outlined a better plan for saving Social Security-and the US economy.

"If we are serious about making Social Security strong and solvent
for the next 75 years, President Obama has the right solution. On
October 14, 2010, he restated a long-held position that the cap on
income subject to Social Security payroll taxes, now at $106,800, should
be raised. As the president has long stated, it is absurd that
billionaires pay the same amount into the system as someone who earns
$106,800," said Sanders. "With the richest people in this country
getting richer and the middle class in decline, it is absurd that
billionaires pay the same amount into the Social Security system as
someone who earns $106,800."

Sanders is right. And President Obama needs to recognize that fact.

To help him do so, MoveOn.org has launched a campaign to: "Tell
(President Obama) that Americans will not stand for this Deficit
Commission report and he must reject it immediately."

"If we want to get serious about the deficit, we need to get the
economy growing again, and make sure the richest 2 percent of Americans
pay their fair share. Instead, this plan cuts taxes for the rich and
corporations substantially," argues MoveOn. "Slashing health care for
seniors and veterans, and cutting Social Security benefits for millions
of folks who are struggling, all to pay for lower taxes for the rich is
just plain wrong."


© 2017 The Nation

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