Social Security: White House Triangulates Against Pete Peterson
Rob Kuttner writes in the Washington Post this morning that billionaire Social Security slasher Pete Peterson was originally scheduled to be a keynote speaker at today’s fiscal responsibility summit (as reported here last Wednesday), but anonymous sources speaking on behalf of the White House tell Greg Sargent it’s not true.
Today, the New York Times reports that Obama’s plans to push for a "social security task force" have been shelved because of opposition from Democratic Congressional leaders (also reported here last Wednesday). But now anonymous White House sources are triangulating against Peterson and present Peter Orszag’s plan as a moderate defense play against the kinds of changes Peterson wants to make.
Ezra Klein’s White House sources tell him:
Any fixes would look more along the lines of, well, the Orszag-Diamond proposal — which most liberal[s] embraced as the responsible alternative in 2005 — than the Pete Peterson plan.
Joe Conason also writes today about Peterson the bogeyman, and his anonymous White House sources tell him the same thing they told Ezra — the administration’s goal is to disentangle Social Security from Medicare and Medicaid:
[T]here is no urgent reason to tinker with Social Security today or tomorrow. And there is every reason to reassure the boomers who will soon start receiving those checks, after paying into the system for the past 40 years or more, that there will be no significant reductions.
My emphasis. Ian Welsh has a rundown of why the proposal is anything but "liberal" (nor as Chris Bowers notes did a majority of Americans — let alone liberals — support the plan at the time of its release.) Here is the language of the Diamond-Orszag plan:
Workers who are 55 or older will experience no change in their benefits from those scheduled under current law. For younger workers with average earnings, our proposal involves a gradual reduction in benefits from those scheduled under current law. For example, the reduction in benefits for a 45-year old average earner is less than 1 percent; for a 35-year-old, less than 5 percent; and for a 25-year-old, less than 9 percent. Reductions are smaller for lower earners, and larger for higher ones.
I interpret "a reduction in benefits" to mean a reduction in benefits. Conason titles his piece "Reform healthcare — and leave Social Security alone." He says "President Obama must not cave in to the privatizers and slashers," but apparently that still allows for the benefit reductions of the Diamond-Orszag plan, which are not deemed "significant."
The NYT piece says Democrat Ellen Tausher is calling for "a bipartisan group to take up the issue and devise a plan," and Mitch McConnell is still pushing the Gregg-Conrad plan (which calls for a group to make recommendations that will receive an up-or-down vote and cannot be amended by Congress).
There is no compelling reason to tinker with Social Security, which will take in $180 billion more than it pays out this year and continue to run a surplus for the next 10 years. The "looming crisis of 2041" could as Atrios notes be accomplished with the simple payroll tax increase Obama suggested during his campaign.
Cutting Social Security, "significantly" or otherwise, is a sop to the Blue Dogs and the Republicans to get them to buy in to healthcare reform, which is no doubt why Rahm Emanuel is meeting with Lindsay Graham about "entitlements generally, health care and Social Security" per the Times (I guess he didn’t get the same memo that Ezra and Conason did about the administration’s deep desire to stop reinforcing the "message of the center-right coalition" by disentangling the two.)
There is going to be a huge push from the center-right to cut Social Security as the price of a buy in on health care reform. "Anonymous White House sources" seem to be laying the groundwork for a "victory" if Orszag’s plan of "modest tax hikes and benefit cuts" saves the benefits of baby boomers from Pete Peterson’s axe. But since they’re never named, we don’t know who we’re supposed to hold accountable for what appears to be a bunch of weasel words that don’t let us know what Rahm Emanuel and Lindsay Graham are really talking about behind closed doors.
I’m betting that before this is over, we’re going to have it out over whether "liberals" find it acceptable to have reductions in Social Security benefits. Not that they need our support — it could be achieved with a NAFTA-style Blue Dog/Republican coalition — but it will still be interesting to find out where everyone comes down.