This is why they call Social Security the “third rail” of American politics.
To even touch the subject is to get zapped. Which is why it’s not on anyone’s agenda in Washington at the moment, at least not anyone who holds an election certificate – and wants to keep it.
Take Minnesota Republican Michele Bachmann, who tells the Constitutional Coalition’s annual conference in St. Louis that we should “wean” future generations off of Social Security and Medicare.
Nobody argues that the two programs, unless they’re put on a sound financial footing, are headed for insolvency.
Bachmann, by her own account, has no plan. Nor do the Democrats.
Realistically, the options aren’t great: Raise payroll deductions or trim benefits.
No wonder Congress procrastinates.
So Bachmann suggests reorganizing Social Security, presumably along the lines of a favorite conservative nostrum, i.e., partial privatization, with personal investment accounts for future retirees that could presumably increase the potential for growth. (Though what would happen in a market crash a la 2008-09 is not clear).
President George W. (“Miss me yet?”) Bush tried the idea on a much more Republican flavored Congress less than a decade ago. It went nowhere. The fear was so great I remember Bachmann’s predecessor, Republican Mark Kennedy, dispute that there was even a plan (hence, of course, he had to take no position).
But back to Bachmann. Liberal bloggers may tell each other – and themselves – that she’s bat poop crazy. But she does not appear to be so crazy as to suggest that we yank Social Security away from the current geriatric set.
Even in Washington, nobody’s that crazy.
So what does she say? She says: “What you have to do, is keep faith with the people that are already in the system…But basically what we have to do is wean everybody else off. And wean everybody off because we have to take those unfunded net liabilities off our bank sheet.”
The reaction is predictably electric.
The Minnesota DFL turns “wean everybody else off” into “wean everybody off” to back up a press release entitled “Bachmann proposes eliminating debt on the backs of seniors.” (True, she said “wean everybody off” on second reference, but the meaning was clear: “keep faith with the people … already in the system.”)
DFL head Brian Melendez minced no words: “Representative Bachmann would like to kick senior citizens off of programs that they depend upon.”
Ironically, one of Bachmann’s 2010 challengers, Physician Maureen Reed, simultaneously releases a statement saying Bachmann “purposely injects fear into public policy debates.”
Another one, State Sen. Tarryl Clark accuses Bachmann of wanting to bring “an end to Social Security and Medicare.”
Maybe so, maybe no. But the word Bachmann used was “reorganize.”
Bachmann’s spokester Dave Dziok cites a potential fix based on a proposal by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., which resembles a reheated version of Bush’s personal retirement accounts.
(Ryan’s plan, in relevant part: “Individuals 55 and older will remain in the current system and will not be affected by this proposal in any way: they will receive the benefits they have been promised, and have planned for, during their working years. All other workers will have a choice to stay in the current system or begin contributing to personal accounts.”)
Who knows what would work. But with the usual overheated rhetoric, it’s hard not to be skeptical that America will ever dig itself out of its deepening Social Security hole.
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