By Walter Alarkon - 07/16/10 12:45 AM EDT
Liberals wary of cuts to Social Security benefits are taking on President Obama’s fiscal commission, seeing it as a more serious threat to the entitlement program than President George W. Bush’s push to privatize the system five years ago.
Nancy Altman, co-director of Social Security Works, a coalition of liberal and senior groups, said Obama’s commission has positioned itself to make major changes to Social Security by working largely behind the scenes. Bush’s failed effort to allow people to shift Social Security payments into private investment accounts was defeated after a public debate, Altman noted.
Obama’s commission, which was created to deal with the country’s $13 trillion debt, is planning to issue recommendations on fiscal policy in December.
The commission’s proposals can’t be enacted without going through Congress, but House and Senate leaders have pledged to call floor votes on those recommendations that get the backing of 14 of the commission’s 18 members.
And though the commission is holding monthly public meetings with all of its 18 members until then, the panel has divided itself into smaller groups that talk policy behind closed doors, Altman said.
A spokesman for the White House fiscal commission noted that 75 groups, including Social Security Works, testified publicly at a commission meeting in June, and that those groups “are being heard and considered” by the panel’s members.
“We are pleased that Social Security Works cares so deeply about this issue,” said Frederick Baldassaro, the panel’s spokesman. “The commission does too, and holds public meetings to make sure the public knows what we are working on.”
With Obama saying that “everything is on the table” for the commission to consider — including tax increases, spending cuts and entitlement reforms — the panel’s co-chairmen, Democrat Erskine Bowles and former Senate Republican Whip Alan Simpson (Wyo.), have said they’ll consider ways to ensure Social Security’s solvency.
House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) have said in recent weeks that an increase in the retirement age should be considered as a way to preserve Social Security. They’ve also expressed interest in indexing the program’s benefit levels to income and price inflation.
Altman said she opposes those reforms, warning that they would lead to lower Social Security payments for seniors who rely on them. Altman said she favored new taxes to make up for any future shortfall.
At a House Ways and Means subcommittee hearing on Social Security on Thursday, Altman urged lawmakers to run any of the fiscal panel’s proposals through the committee process, as was done with Bush’s proposal.
Social Security payments will exceed the revenue the program takes in through payroll taxes for the first time this year, according to a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report released in March. But the program still has about $2.5 trillion in surplus funds — enough to pay out the full level of benefits until 2037 — because Congress in the mid-1980s increased payroll taxes to prepare for the retirement of baby boomers.
Altman’s group, Social Security Works, is backed by left-leaning organizations such as MoveOn.org, the AFL-CIO and Service Employees International Union and senior groups such as the AARP and the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.
Those groups and House Democrats have questioned why the commission is looking at Social Security when the program has paid for itself and doesn’t add to the deficit.
“We will not have sidebar conversations about the deficit [and Social Security],” said Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.). “We have to separate the rights of seniors.”
Klein spoke at an event Thursday held by the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare. The group unveiled a University of New Hampshire poll showing that 77 percent of Americans are opposed to including Social Security changes in a deficit-cutting plan.
Republicans said something should be done to make sure the entitlement stays solvent, and noted that GOP proposals to preserve Social Security have been backed by Democrats before.
Rep. Sam Johnson (Texas), a senior Republican on the House Ways and Means Committee, said Hoyer, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Vice President Joe Biden, when he was in the Senate, have been open to raising the retirement age. Even President Clinton once looked at allowing people to opt into private Social Security accounts, Johnson noted.
“And both those administrations thought it would strengthen Social Security’s finances,” he said.