"Concord Coalition Condemns 'Race to the Bottom' on Social Security Rhetoric"



As two former congressional staffers who, in 1998, drafted what remains the only balanced, bipartisan, bicameral Social Security reform legislation, we know firsthand how hard it is to craft a meaningful compromise that honestly addresses the challenges facing our nation's most popular entitlement program. We are, therefore, extremely alarmed by the harsh partisan reaction to the innocuous efforts of AARP and For Our Grandchildren encouraging candidates to engage in a constructive discussion about Social Security reform.  

Groups on the left and Democrats in Congress have attacked a candidate pledge being circulated by For Our Grandchildren as a stalking horse for "privatization" even though the pledge never mentions personal accounts. The pledge simply states, "[A]ll options should be on the table" and commits candidates "to work toward a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for the long term by putting aside partisan politics and seeking common ground." 

Not to be outdone in Social Security demagoguery, the National Republican Campaign Committee has attacked Democratic candidates for proposing to "slash Social Security benefits" and raise taxes because candidates affirmed their support in an AARP voter guide for "a balanced Social Security plan to continue the program's guaranteed benefits for future generations." 

 It is ironic that AARP has become a victim of the political distortions that surround Social Security because the group has, at times, engaged in equally inflammatory rhetoric.  Nonetheless, AARP's acknowledgement that Social Security is financially unstable, as well as the group's call for a balanced reform plan, should be embraced as building blocks for consensus rather than used as the basis for political attacks. Similarly, For Our Grandchildren  -- an organization that advocates the addition of personal accounts -- should be lauded, not lambasted, for promoting a bipartisan process for Social Security reform that is not contingent on support for its key principles.  A true bipartisan process must begin without preconditions for reform.

 There was a time not long ago when elected officials were willing to put partisanship aside to have thoughtful discussions about Social Security.  We worked for two Members of Congress, Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-AZ) and Charlie Stenholm (D-TX) whose commitment to bipartisan cooperation on this issue was such that they were willing to come to the aid of members of the other party who were attacked for supporting reforms of Social Security. 

The willingness to rise above partisanship on Social Security has extended to the Oval Office.  Following his State of the Union Address last year, President Bush assured listeners, "I don't care whether it's a Democrat idea, Republican idea, independent idea, I'm interested in ideas. I want to work with members of the Congress.... [O]ther people have had some good ideas; they're on the table. And if you want to lay one out, I promise you there won't be political retribution for having done so.""

And in 1998, President Clinton made this admonition at a forum hosted by The Concord Coalition and AARP in July 1998:

We dare not let this disintegrate into a partisan rhetorical battle. Senior citizens are going to be Republicans and Democrats and independents. They're going to come from all walks of life, from all income backgrounds, from every region of this country, and therefore, so will their children and their grandchildren. This is an American challenge and we have to meet it together.

Unfortunately, these words have fallen on deaf ears as candidates from both parties engage in a race to the bottom. The recent Minnesota Senate debate on Meet the Press, for example,showcased Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) and Hennepin County attorney Amy Klobuchar (D) in a race to outbid each other in ruling out options for Social Security reform. Note to Congressional candidates: if all options are off the table, how do you solve the problem? Regrettably, this type of destructive debate is being repeated in campaigns across the country.

 While it is easy for critics to attack specific proposals for reform and make promises about preserving benefit promises or opposing taxes, it is difficult to put together a plan that puts Social Security on a sound financial footing.  Finding a solution will require legislators from both parties to come together and consider all possible solutions.  This will be more difficult in a Congress composed of members who won election by using Social Security as a wedge issue and others who fended off attacks by pledging to oppose any changes in Social Security.

 Sadly, rather than use the platform offered by AARP and For Our Grandchildren to conduct a serious debate about the future of Social Security, some in both parties have used them to deploy Social Security as a political weapon.  The problem with pursuing this scorched earth strategy, however, is that it leaves no fertile soil to nurture the seeds of reform.  

Ed Lorenzen is the Policy Director for The Concord Coalition and former aide to Congressman Charlie Stenholm. Tori Gorman is a Policy Analyst with The Concord Coalition and a former aide to Congressman Jim Kolbe.