This week's deal to raise the debt ceiling should remove any doubt about the power corporate interests have over our government. The deal, hammered out by the president and Republican congressional leaders, places the burden of reducing our long-term budget problems squarely on average Americans, while the wealthiest individuals and corporations are given a free pass.
But the deal poses a larger threat. A provision in the agreement creates an appointed "Super Committee" in Congress that could circumvent normal rules and slash cherished programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.
How could this happen? Prior to this week's debt agreement, it's been extremely difficult to cut Social Security benefits, because doing so required 60 votes to overcome an almost certain filibuster in the Senate. And rightly so - Social Security is the most successful and popular government program in the history of the United States.
Yet the so-called Super Committee, which will be appointed by congressional leaders in both parties to consider additional budget cuts, will enjoy authority that no other entity or special legislative process has ever had: it will have the power to propose Social Security reductions that are guaranteed an up-or-down vote in the Senate, and therefore can be adopted by a simple majority. And unlike most measures in the Senate, the Super Committee's recommendations related to Social Security will not be subject to unlimited debate - a standard protection against drastic action. Further, no amendments will be allowed. Make no mistake, those who crafted and agreed to the Super Committee were well aware of this and there can be no doubt Republicans plan to take full advantage.
So ultimately, if the Super Committee's recommendations propose cuts to Social Security, the only means to block them would be to strike down the entire Super Committee bill. But there's a dangerous trapdoor - failing to enact the overall Super Committee bill would trigger automatic across-the-board cuts that will be strongly opposed by powerful constituencies.
In short, unless congressional leaders appoint progressives willing to stand up to moneyed interests, the Super Committee will be nothing less than a chopping block for Social Security.
Here's how it would work: assuming all 6 Republican appointees support Social Security cuts, it would only take one Democratic appointee to include them in the committee's final recommendation. Once cuts to Social Security are included in that final Super Committee bill, the Senate's 47 Republicans would need just four Democrats to produce the majority needed to pass them, and unfortunately finding those four Democrats probably is not all that difficult.
And ironically, the inability to amend the Super Committee legislation will provide some senators with the perfect excuse: "I didn't like the Social Security cuts, but I had to accept them as part of the entire bill."
This means that the identity of the Democratic appointees to the Super Committee will be critical. Because sadly, there are already a handful of Democratic senators ready to take an axe to Social Security; and regrettably, some of them are well positioned to sit on the Super Committee. So it's essential that every Democrat appointed to this perverse Super Committee pledge to reject any cuts to Social Security.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi understands this, and has promised that each of the Democrats she appoints to the Super Committee will oppose entitlement benefit cuts. Democrats should urge Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to make the same commitment. America's most cherished social program must be protected.