The first argument used against the legislation was ideological. Conservative opponents called it socialistic because it allowed government to force individual Americans to take money from their own funds to pay for the benefits of other Americans who are less well off and can't afford to pay themselves. This violates the principles of individual liberty and the free market to allocate wealth, conservatives argued. But liberals opted for collective responsibility enforced by the central federal government for the greater, common good.
Another aspect of the legislation that caused division was a split on interpreting the U.S. Constitution. Conservatives argued that the U.S. Congress does not have explicit power in the Constitution to force individuals to do something they do not want to do to help someone else. This power, unless explicitly "enumerated" in the Constitution, they argued, was "reserved" to the states under the 10th Amendment.
Liberals argued that the Constitution allowed Congress to tax certain individuals more than others in order to promote the general welfare.
The U.S. Supreme Court, by a narrow 5-4 vote, sided with liberals, finding that Congress has the power to mandate that those who can afford it have to pay for those who cannot afford financial benefits. Liberals rejoiced.
Finally, some of the most vigorous opponents of the legislation expressed outrage that those who are young and healthy are being forced to pay -- out of their pockets, in higher taxes -- for those who are old and infirm. That's not fair, they argued. I don't need the benefits -- why should I be forced to pay for them to benefit others? Let them pay.
But, the president argued, young and healthy people are needed to participate and pay extra taxes, or the system of benefits would never work. If only the old and infirm had to pay, there wouldn't be enough money to protect everyone. The president argued that young, healthy people needed to pay today because some day they will be old and infirm too. Then when they are old and infirm, their children will pay for them. And so on and on -- it's a generational social compact to care for the older generation and then to receive care from the next younger generation.
Finally, it was time to implement this idea, and suddenly everyone realized: this is really complicated. It's an unprecedented national system of record-keeping and administrative complexity on a scale never attempted in American history. There were plenty of doubts -- and plenty of screw-ups -- in the first few months; indeed, in the first few years. Complaints from Americans trying to get access to the system and get their questions answered piled up. The access to the system bottlenecked and often utterly broke down.
It took more than four years to fix all the problems, before the actual benefits were afforded to all Americans. Modifications and serious changes were made to improve the law 20 years and 30 years, and even about 70 years, later.
"Never in the history of the world has any measure been brought in here so insidiously designed so as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers, and to prevent any possibility of the employers providing work for the people," was the dire prediction of a conservative Republican from upstate New York.
OK, OK. You get it by now.
I am writing about the history of Social Security -- modified in the 1950s to include retirees spouses, in the 1960s to include medical care for the elderly (Medicare), in the 1970s to add automatic cost-of-living adjustments, and in the early 2000s, under a conservative president, to add prescription drug coverage. There have been ongoing and regular tax increases to keep the system solvent, including under the conservative hero president, Ronald Reagan.
Yes, it seems a lot like what we are going through with ObamaCare. Which is why I have written that we Democrats need to fess up that we messed up. But we also need to remember what happened when Social Security was first enacted -- and then take ObamaCare and mend it, not end it.
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This column appears first and weekly in The Hill and the Hill.com.
Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, in which he specializes in crisis management. He is special counsel to Dilworth Paxson of Philadelphia and the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life (Threshold Editions/Simon and Schuster).