In the excoriation of Nancy Pelosi for her remarks about chained CPI for Social Security, and similar criticisms of what was widely taken as another cave by President Obama when dealing with Congressional Republicans, no one seems to have noticed that Democrats have been tinkering with Social Security benefits, often with cutbacks, for over fifty years, longer than almost all of us have been in the work force.
Forget what you think you know about third-rail politics. Over the years, Social Security has been often tinkered with by Congress, sometimes to do good, sometimes to do bad, sometimes, you decide and always with Democrats in charge of at least one and sometimes all of the branches of government required to pass the amendments.
For example, even though Social Security took on its modern form in 1939, under FDR, the program made no provision whatsoever for cost of living adjustment (COLA) until 1951. Even then, it wasn't reliable, with Congress voting session by session:
The next significant change to the SSA occurred in 1950, when the first cost of living adjustment (COLA) was added the program. This was a one-time increase in benefits of 7.7%; the next COLA occurred in 1952, a 12.5% increase.Automatic COLA didn't come around until 1972. Other amendments haven't been as kind to retirees.
Some further reflections on the history of amendments to the Social Security Act are out in the tall grass if you want to follow along,
At least three times before, Social Security benefits have been effectively reduced by various mechanisms, each time with the support of at least one branch of the federal government under the control of Democrats. It was JFK, with complete Democratic control of Congress in 1961 who passed reduced benefits for optional early retirement between ages 62 and 64. In 1975, Democrats firmly held both Houses of Congress, with weak Republican Gerald Ford limping along in the dismal wake of Watergate. They raised Social Security taxes, reduced benefits and increased the income ceiling subject to FICA.
In 1983, it happened again under conditions sort of like today's, but reversed, with Republicans in control of the Senate and White House and Democrats retaining control of the House. I found that this 2006 historical essay from the NY State CPA Society summed up what happened accurately and succinctly:
The first recognition of the fragility of the Social Security program occurred in 1975. A report developed by the Treasury Department indicated that Social Security payroll taxes collected would be insufficient to meet Social Security payments by 1979. In response, Congress increased the tax rate, reduced benefits, and made the automatic adjustment to the amount of earnings subject to Social Security independent of the COLA. These steps averted a potential Social Security failure.To be sure, no imminent Social Security crisis specifically looms this very moment. To be even more sure, even if there were a Social Security crisis demanding immediate attention, that problem is entirely separate from the problem, if any, of the deficit. Addressing one does little or nothing to address the problems of the other.
In 1983, another potential Social Security crisis was avoided. President Ronald Reagan formed the Greenspan Commission to study the financial state of Social Security. The commission issued a detailed report calling for numerous, sweeping changes to be implemented in order to strengthen Social Security. A bill passed by Congress based upon the recommendations of the Greenspan Commission taxed some Social Security benefits, included federal employees in the definition of employees for Social Security payroll tax purposes, and scheduled increases in the retirement age in the next century.
As far as Social Security is concerned, sooner or later, changes will occur. The idea that Social Security benefits are sacrosanct really has no historical foundation given the kinds of changes the system has endured in the past at the hands of Democrats.
It's a damn shame that our leaders let chained CPI into the recent round of Lame Duck negotiations, but it isn't as though Democrats don't have a record of supporting Social Security changes, both up and down, rather more drastic in effect than the current proposed change to chained CPI for COLA. Once again, the NY CPA's provide a short summary of the history of Social Security COLA:
The next significant change to the SSA occurred in 1950, when the first cost of living adjustment (COLA) was added the program. This was a one-time increase in benefits of 7.7%; the next COLA occurred in 1952, a 12.5% increase. In 1954, a stipulation was added that would freeze a worker’s record during the years he was disabled and unable to work. This amendment avoided a worker’s receiving reduced or no benefits in the event of a disability.In 1972, Democrats raised the cost of Social Security to workers. In 1983, Democrats helped Ronald Reagan raise the retirement age to 67. These were battles lost by progressives. Then again, none of us can remember when the Democrats were a real progressive party. We're making a lot of progress, but we have a long road ahead.
In 1961, the retirement age for men was reduced to 62, with a reduced monthly benefit for those choosing to retire early. Several major changes to Social Security occurred with the 1972 amendment: automatic COLAs were instituted, a minimum monthly benefit was established, monthly benefits were significantly increased to those individuals waiting until age 65 to retire, and a system for automatic increases in the amount of earnings subject to Social Security taxation was developed.
Excoriating our coalition partners doesn't strengthen progressives politically and can weaken those partners who on many days are our friends, thus lessening the help they can provide to our causes, Calls for ideological purity have a place, but it ignores history to believe that every last penny of Social Security is somehow sacrosanct for Democrats to even talk about when horse trading in Congress for needed legislation. Unless this somehow boomerangs on the GOP, I agree with many here that putting chained CPI on the table in the deficit negotiations was a blunder. When Republicans mindlessly demand Social Security cuts, just say no should do the trick. I also see a massive overreaction to that blunder in discussions on Daily Kos.
There are great arguments for keeping, at least, Social Security away from the Lame Ducks. Like most here, despite the inevitable fiscal and human costs, I favor stepping off the curb. Shifts in Congress next term could help overcome some of the logjam.
The idea that bringing up chained CPI in the budget talks was a gigantic mistake is inspired by a righteous view that Social Security benefits should only go up, and never go down. But, that point of view has never had much traction in any of the debates over tinkering with Social Security, time after time, as in the various examples described here.
I favor every measure to strengthen and preserve Social Security and Medicare. I will soon be a beneficiary of both. The years ahead show me many paths where I will never have to subsist on Social Security income alone, but some where I might. I would like to see Social Security strengthened and maybe even see benefits improved by eliminating the income ceiling on FICA to raise extensive new revenue from $100,000 and up incomes. Doing the same simple thing to Medicare taxes would solve a large piece of ACA/Medicare and deficit trouble.
Nancy Pelosi is a friend to a great many progressive issues. A powerful friend. So is President Obama. We can lament when our friends make mistakes, make our arguments to them on the merits of the issue and posit alternative scenarios to our heart's content. But it's usually better to reserve judgment over whether we have been treacherously sold out by said friend. Let's save our most ardent and colorful excoriation for our known enemies. It's less conflicting and more satisfying.