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More Notice Growing Bipartisan Consensus for Social Security Benefit Cuts

It’s a bit jarring that it’s taken the Josh Marshall empire this long to plug in to the looming reality of the cat food commission and their drive to cut Social Security. Marshall led the fight online against Bush’s privatization scheme, but has laid low as the Bowles-Simpson commission organized themselves. But in a piece from Brian Beutler, finally the growing rhetoric is getting a notice, particularly for increases in the retirement age.

Several of the most powerful members of the House — Republicans and Democrats — have recently voiced real support for the idea of raising the retirement age for people middle-aged and younger as part of a larger plan to reduce long-term deficits, inching closer to what not too long ago was the third rail of American politics […]

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer explicitly put the idea on the table as well in a speech last month. “We should consider a higher retirement age or one pegged to lifespan,” Hoyer said.

He echoed House Majority Whip James Clyburn, who put it this way: “With minor changes to the program such as raising the salary cap and raising the retirement age by one month every year, the program could become solvent for the next 75 years.” One month a year may not sound like much, but if you’re 30 years away from retirement, that adds up to almost three years.

In the House, though, Nancy Pelosi is the linchpin, and she’s not nearly as enthusiastic as her colleagues. But, notwithstanding the enthusiasm gap, she also left the possibility of raising the retirement age on the table. When asked about it by TPMDC at her press conference last week, she criticized the plan, but mainly to say she disagrees with putting Social Security on the chopping block ahead of other measures. “Why they would start talking about a place that could be harmful to our seniors — 70 is a relative age,” Pelosi said. “Around here, there’s not a lot of outdoor work or heavy lifting. But for some people it is, and 70 means something different to them. So in any event let’s talk about growth, lets talk about how we can reduce spending, lets put everything, those initiatives: promoting growth, tightening the belt, looking at entitlements. But let’s not start on the backs of our seniors.”

Pelosi, of course, orchestrated last week’s vote which committed the House (though not statutorily) to voting on any Senate-passed recommendations of the cat food commission.

Increasing the payroll tax cap to capture the 90% of salary which was the historical benchmark would cover close to half of the long-term Social Security funding issues, which are relatively minor compared to all other federal spending. Eliminating the payroll tax cap would eliminate that long-term issue entirely and allow for a modest increase in benefits. The choice to raise the retirement age is a choice to essentially give richer Americans a large tax cut. And that’s the choice Steny Hoyer, James Clyburn and arguably Nancy Pelosi are making. Raising the retirement age is a benefit cut over the lifetime of the program, and it breaks the promise of Social Security.

I got in a small Twitter spat before leaving last week for vacation with someone who was convinced that the Senate would never vote for any of the cat food commission recommendations, for a variety of reasons. In the first place, the solution would be balanced with tax increases, and Republicans would never go for them. But Republicans on the panel are singing its praises precisely because of the focus on spending cuts to the exclusion of tax increases. Next he said that Democratic Senators wouldn’t go along with anything that fell harshly on the side of cuts, but the words of Hoyer and Clyburn certainly show the possibility for Democratic leaders to agree, and you can tick off a handful of conservative Senate Democrats willing to show their fiscal responsibility bona fides without even thinking hard about it.

It would be good to see people wake up to this reality. Perhaps nothing will come out of the commission. Perhaps Republicans will see a tax and just vote it down. Perhaps 41 Democrats will stick together. But one thing is clear – with no pushback from the grassroots, politicians will feel quite free to mess with Social Security and build a bipartisan DC consensus against the public.

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David Dayen

David Dayen