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January 23, 2018

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The Policy Racket

Nevada senators take opposing sides on Social Security


Karoun Demirjian

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid holds a press conference Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011, in Washington, D.C., speaking out against any measures to privatize or eliminate Social Security.

John Ensign

John Ensign

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid delivered a chilly response Thursday to the growing chorus of Republican voices who have been calling for severe austerity measures in the face of a metastasizing debt crisis, among them, a privatization of Social Security.

“Simply said, it’s off the table,” Reid said at a press conference with Social Security recipients Thursday. “As long as I am majority leader, I will do everything within my legislative powers to prevent privatizing or eliminating Social Security.”

The push to privatize Social Security fell off the agenda after hitting a hard loss back in 2005. Despite strong support among the Republican majorities in the House, Senate, and the endorsement of then-Republican President George W. Bush, lawmakers weren’t able to get around fierce opposition from the Democratic minority to get it passed.

But it’s come back up on the agenda in the past weeks, and especially the past few days, as Congress has been delivered projection after projection showing the national debt spiralling out of control.

Republicans put up perhaps their biggest champion of privatizing Social Security, Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, to give the party’s official rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday, which focused chiefly on the subject of the economy.

House Republicans appear ready to back Ryan’s plan to have workers under the age of 55 invest up to a third of Social Security taxes they pay into personal retirement accounts. There’s also support for raising the retirement age from 67 to 69 — a change that was first floated in the 1980s when then-Speaker Tip O’Neill and then-President Ronald Reagan were hashing out a long-term solution to the Social Security program and one that was firmly endorsed by the President’s Debt Commission report, released late last year.

Obama said in his speech that he hoped to find “a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations.”

Social Security is currently projected to run out of money in 2039, a scenario that has led many lawmakers to declare it a program in crisis.

But Democratic leaders are deriding Republicans for using scare tactics to drum up despondency about a program that is presently posting about $2.9 trillion in surplus, a number they expect to rise to $4 trillion by 2039.

“It’s only a program in crisis for those who want to privatize it,” said Reid. “The reason they’re going after Social Security is that’s where the money is.”

Democrats, still rankled by the concessions they made during the lame duck, have been excoriating Republicans for playing roulette with the deficit by extending tax cuts for the wealthy and defending defense spending but expecting to balance the budget through cutting social entitlement programs.

“It can’t just be non-defense discretionary spending,” said Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. “This is a tiny fraction of the federal budget. That can’t be the piggy bank to get our federal budget in control; it’s too small.”

But Republicans object to equating tax extensions with spending — “you can only believe the extension of current tax rates for two more years creates a bigger deficit if you believe that is the government’s money,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas — and counter that it’s entirely defensible to seek to balance the budget writ large on the back of money presently in the bank.

“The biggest threat to Social Security is our debt,” said Nevada Sen. John Ensign. “The debt is unsustainable. That’s a threat to everything, including Social Security. We have to look at what we can possibly do to make it a better system, and you at least have to look at things like raising the retirement age.”

Ensign is one of several Republican senators pushing for Congress to adopt a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution, which would require the federal government to strike an equilibrium in the budget every year. That’s only one of the existential proposals on the table: Republicans and Democrats are also proposing budgeting in two- and five-year increments from here on out, as a way to set a long-term plan for tackling down the national debt, currently topping $14 trillion — or about $45,400 per person in the United States.

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