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White House Lists Principles for Social Security Reform

The gasbags are making hay of the fact that the Obama 2012 budget doesn’t address what they refer to as entitlements. But that’s not entirely true. There are some health care-related cost savings in the budget proposal, though they are minor and go mainly toward paying for a fix in Medicare reimbursement rates. And there’s a kind of statement of principles on Social Security early in the document. Here it is in its entirety:

The President believes that we should come together now, in bipartisan fashion, to strengthen Social Security for the future. He calls on the Congress to follow the example of great leaders in the past – such as Speaker Thomas P. O’Neill Jr. and President Ronald Reagan — and work in a bipartisan fashion to strengthen Social Security for years to come. Guiding the Administration in these talks will be the President’s six principles for reform:

1. Any reform should strengthen Social Security for future generations and restore long-term solvency.

2. The Administration will oppose any measures that privatize or weaken the Social Security system.

3. While all measures to strengthen solvency should be on the table, the Administration will not accept an approach that slashes benefits for future generations.

4. No current beneficiaries should see their basic benefits reduced.

5. Reform should strengthen retirement security for the most vulnerable, including low-income seniors.

6. Reform should maintain robust disability and survivors’ benefits.

I think Chris Bowers looks at this exactly right. The only reform that the White House really takes off the table is privatization. He doesn’t want to reduce benefits for current beneficiaries, but doesn’t want to slash benefits for future generations. That’s a key shift in language there. The President doesn’t define “slash,” and presumably anything that gets negotiated will be described after the fact as necessary to saving the program without “slashing” those benefits. There’s also a nod to strengthening retirement security for low-income individuals and maintaining disability and survivors’ benefits.

Nothing in this approach deviates from what Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson recommended on Social Security. They called for raising the retirement age over time; the President may not see that as “slashing” benefits, though they do amount to a reduction over time. Bowles and Simpson included a progressive price indexing component, that raises the benefit for those at low incomes modestly and cutting them for moderate and high incomes. That’s in line with what the White House expresses as principles. I’m sure that the White House would call any deal as simply slowing the growth of Social Security, not a benefit cut.

Bowers adds:

Furthermore, no deal will be announced unless the Obama administration is behind it. As David Axelrod said to me three weeks ago when I asked him if there was any deal on Social Security President Obama would veto:

“I will say this. I don’t think — there’s not going to be a bipartisan agreement for him to veto. I think if there’s a bipartisan agreement that it’s going to be hammered out around the principles that he articulated last night or it’s probably not going to move forward. Just the nature of the issue.”

As Elizabeth Drew mentioned today, the White House and Republican leaders are still working on that grand bargain. Nothing in this statement of principles would derail that.

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David Dayen

David Dayen