I’ve heard many people lament that Social Security won’t be around by the time they need it. Social Security is quite sound and is well run. It has to be tweaked from time to time to keep it that way, and that’s where the voters come in. If the voters put people in office who support it, Social Security will continue to thrive. If the people vote for candidates like Tom Cotton (Repub., Ark.) who oppose it, and if people like him achieve a majority in Congress with a like-minded President, Social Security will indeed fade away. It depends on whom the voters elect.
Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush believed their elections in 1980 and 2004 were mandates to privatize and initiate the systematic destruction of Social Security. A Democratic majority in the House led by Speaker Tip O’Neill reached a compromise with Reagan to save it, and Reagan is still hated by many because of some of his cuts in benefits. Mr. Bush was stopped primarily by a horrified public. His sneak attack on Social Security may have played a huge role in the Democrats’ return to control of both houses of Congress in the 2006 elections.
President Obama stunned nearly all of his supporters in his first term when he put Social Security and Medicare on the negotiating table to achieve a “grand bargain” with the Republicans on the budget. Luckily, the GOP didn’t realize they had won and turned him down because they had decided to never agree with him on anything. Many of Obama’s 2008 voters have never trusted him since. If he had agreed to weaken those programs, Mitt Romney would probably be President today because many previous Obama voters would have stayed home on Election Day 2012.
You may not be aware that Bill Clinton during his second term was also on the verge of negotiating away Social Security standards and essentially selling out the middle class and seniors. Neither Clinton nor Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (Repub., GA) trusted each other, but they both trusted the corporate Democrat and investment banker Erskine Bowles. According to Steven Gillon (author of The Pact: Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the Rivalry That Defined a Nation), it was Bowles’ secretive shuttle diplomacy that worked out a tentative deal to “fix” Social Security.
Under Clinton, the unemployment rate was down and the stock market was up, so they thought they might be able to get some public support for privatizing Social Security, raising the age of eligibility, and lowering the cost of living adjustments. All congressional Republicans would go for it, and they might get would enough corporate Democrats to go along.
Fortunately, the Monica Lewinsky affair prevented the seniors and middle class from getting screwed. Their irresponsible eagerness to find a reason to impeach Clinton helped the Republicans lose some seats in the 1998 elections, and Newt Gingrich resigned from the House in humiliation. Because the House actually impeached him during the following lame duck session, Clinton needed all his Senate Democrats to support him. If they had known what he had been up to on Social Security, they may have abandoned him and let V.P. Al Gore become President. Thanks to Miss Lewinsky (bless her heart), we got rid of Gingrich “Khan” and saved Social Security at the same time.
On November 4, a majority of the 37% of registered voters who bothered to vote put both houses of Congress in the hands of the Fox-Republican-Tea Party, which is obsessed with sabotaging and ultimately destroying Social Security and Medicare. (That was the lowest voter turnout since 1942 when the nation was united by WWII.) That also means that the other 63% who neglected their obligation to democracy also “voted” to undermine Social Security and Medicare as well: silence is consent.
With the election of Mr. Cotton to the Senate, my home state of Arkansas doesn’t have a single supporter of Social Security and Medicare in Washington. Our four representatives in the House and now both senators are devoted to the agenda of the reactionary plutocracy that wants to dismantle our social safety net and return to the precarious past: the Koch brothers, Grover Norquist, Club for (Greed) Growth, Americans for Prosperity, American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), et al.
Regrettably, even Pres. Obama has stacked his current 18-member Deficit Commission with 14 participants who favor cutting Social Security benefits. The meetings are held behind closed doors, and Erskine Bowles is its chairman! You’ve heard it before: they’re probably planning to recommend balancing the budget on the backs of the seniors.
The OCED (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) has compared the social security benefits of its 34 member nations and 8 other major economies and found the U.S. near the bottom. American workers’ benefits rank at number 36 among the 42 nations studied, right below Slovenia. We ought to be ashamed. Social Security is one of our most efficient and effective programs, but it should be made even better.
Instead, In January 2015 we will have a majority in Congress, and seemingly a President, that maliciously wants to reduce benefits, raise the age of eligibility to 70, and privatize it so the plutocracy can make a profit from it. This is what the majority of 2014 voters and all the no-shows evidently want. If that is what the richest country in the world truly desires, the future for American workers and seniors looks very bleak.
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published in the November 20, 2014, edition of the Arkansas Times as a letter to the editor and in the November 26, 2014, edition of the El Dorado News-Times as a Guest Column.