05/02/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Future of Social Security Rests with Nancy Pelosi

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds the fate of Social Security in her hands.

The Speaker must use her power to make three appointments to President Obama's Deficit Commission to name lawmakers who will vote against raising the retirement age and re-computing the cost of living. If she doesn't, President Obama's Deficit Commission will recommend both of these things. The result will be reduced Social Security benefits for future retirees who will need every penny of retirement income they can get.

There's no question that the President's Commission has its sights aimed at Social Security. Alan Simpson, Obama's Republican co-chair, famously trashed AARP for its advocacy for seniors and supported Social Security privatization. He lays the blame for the deficit on seniors: "How did we get to a point in America where you get to a certain age in life, regardless of net worth or income, and you're 'entitled'?"

The answer, of course, is that Americans earn those benefits after a lifetime of contributions. Since most of us will eventually grow old (if we're not there already), this attempt to frame the issue in us-versus-them terms is puzzling. Simpson's prejudices aside, seniors have much lower average incomes than working-age Americans, leaving most dependent on Social Security benefits that are less than what minimum-wage workers earn. That's why polls show that most people -- Republicans and Democrats -- are happy to pay modestly higher payroll taxes to preserve Social Security benefits.

You would hardly think this was an option listening to Obama's appointees. Alice Rivlin, a Democratic appointee, has already announced that her answer to the deficit includes raising the Social Security retirement age. This is a benefit cut, plain and simple. The two-year increase we're going through right now reduces monthly benefits for a senior who retires at 65 by 13%, or $150. Raising the retirement age further, from 67 to 70, would reduce benefits by 30%, and the pain would be borne by younger workers, not today's seniors - so we wouldn't be doing our children or grandchildren any favors.

With fewer than half of workers on a path to a secure retirement, Social Security benefits are needed now more than ever. And despite alarmist attempts to portray Social Security as a system in crisis, there's no reason its benefits shouldn't be there for future generations. Social Security has a long-term shortfall equal to just 0.7% of GDP. To put this in perspective, this is only slightly more than the cost of extending the Bush tax cuts to the top 1% of taxpayers. The system can be brought into long-term balance by modest revenue adjustments, without cutting critically-needed benefits.

The Deficit Commission was set up with rules requiring a vote by 14 of the 18 commissioners for any recommendation. Blocking cuts to Social Security thus requires five commissioners. It is fair to assume that every Republican will support such cuts, since opposition to "entitlements" is part of their party mantra (though it does not extend to entitlements that take the form of tax breaks like lower capital gains rates or mortgage interest deductions for second homes).

So where will five votes against Social Security cuts come from? One vote will be union leader Andy Stern's. He has announced that his special role on the Commission will be to defend Social Security. Sen. Dick Durbin should be a vote against such cuts, since he is among a handful of truly progressive senators who understand how hard it is to survive - as one-third of retired Americans do - with no income beyond Social Security.

Sen. Max Baucus is a wild card. He opposed the Conrad-Gregg deficit commission bill because, he said, it put a big target on the back of Social Security. But to say that Baucus is not reliably progressive is to state the obvious. He has made deals to help pass the Bush tax cuts for the rich, to kill the public option in the health care bill, and to enact a series of business tax cuts in the Bush and Obama stimulus bills that have left progressives groaning.

That leaves Speaker Pelosi's three appointments. If even one of her appointees is not unshakably opposed to Social Security benefit cuts, it could be disastrous. If two of Pelosi's appointees are not iron-clad opponents of raising the retirement age, the Commission will recommend it, Congress will take it up swiftly after the November election, and the right wing will have won another victory, cutting another big hole in the safety net.

Key House Democrats, including Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel, are unreliable supporters of Social Security. He has been quoted as entertaining the notion of raising the retirement age again, and the entitlement-hating Blue Dogs can be expected to pressure Pelosi to appoint one of their members to the Commission. She must resist.

When President George W. Bush made a pass at privatizing Social Security, Nancy Pelosi proved herself to be one of its most ardent and capable defenders. Now hardworking Americans must count on her to show the same leadership.

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