Monday, March 28, 2011 | 3:22 p.m.
WASHINGTON - Nevada Sen. Harry Reid drew a line in the sand a long time ago on Social Security, but now that Congress is back in session hammering out a budget, he’s putting extra pomp behind his message to Republicans to “back off” the program.
It’s an argument that finds a ready audience, especially since the president’s been saying he’s interested in tweaking Social Security in the next few years to preserve its long-term viability.
But for the most part, the case Reid is making to protect Social Security goes way beyond the scope of the immediate threat.
“For nearly every Nevadan 65 and older, they rely on Social Security,” Reid said Monday at a rally in the Dirksen Senate Office Building for protecting benefits against reductions and preserving the retirement age. “For half of them, it’s the only money that keeps them out of poverty. But I have to say that the Republicans don’t seem to care ... Look at their proposals, look at HR 1.”
If one looks at H.R. 1, the House’s budget bill that the Senate nixed earlier this month, one finds that while the Social Security Administration does get walloped with cuts to discretionary spending -- a hefty $1.7 billion worth -- those are just to the operating budget of the administration. Nowhere in H.R. 1, or any other piece of pending budget legislation, is there language that would scale back payments, raise the retirement age or institute some sort of private-sector alternative along the lines of what former President George W. Bush was pushing in 2005 -- though there are certainly Republicans in House leadership who would like to bring such proposals back on the table.
At first blush, that would seem to make most of the protective hackle-raising around Social Security a little premature.
But Democrats say it’s not so much premature as it is prescient.
The cuts to Social Security are administrative; they don’t change entitlements and they don’t change money on hand. But what they do affect is the speed with which the administration would be able to process applications and payments, which could also “really hurt Social Security,” Reid said Monday.
Backlogs can be serious business. In 2008, the Social Security Administration had racked up almost 770,000 unconsidered cases nationwide, which translated into several years’ wait for some hopeful recipients, depending on the jurisdiction. In Nevada, the average wait time to process a Social Security disability application is still well over a year.
Some advocates estimate that the $1.7 billion budget cut would cramp the system to the point of total inefficiency and even a temporary shutdown, and predict that the resulting picture of an outdated and under-performing Social Security system would only fodder growing calls to revamp the program.
It wouldn’t be the first time Democrats have suspected that a deal on Social Security unrelated to the question of retirement age, payments and the $106,000 taxable income cap -- which some of Reid’s Senate colleagues led an impassioned call to raise at Monday’s event -- was a way of undermining the program for the future.
Last year, Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland questioned whether a 2 percent reduction in workers’ Social Security payroll tax rate, under the plan hashed out between the White House and Republicans in the Senate, was simply “a step toward privatization.”
While no concrete cuts to Social Security have yet been on the block, Republicans haven’t exactly shrunk from expressing their belief that privatization might not be the worst model, or challenging Democrats to quit viewing Social Security funds as a sacred, parceled entity that can’t be touched during general government reductions.
“The biggest threat to Social Security is our debt,” Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign recently said.
That’s not an argument Democrats are heeding though, as they rally their blue-collar supporters to push back against incursions on Social Security before they get too far under way. “Social Security has not contributed one penny to the debt or the deficit,” Reid said. “I believe it’s the most successful program in the history of the world.”