01/03/2012 12:11 pm ET Updated Mar 04, 2012

The Politics of Social Security in 2011: From Supermajority to Supercommittee

For Social Security’s advocates, this past year has been all about defense. Fortunately, the defense outplayed the offense. Those of us playing defense were backed by the overwhelming majority of the American people who across both party line and virtually every demographic are clear that they do not want to see Social Security benefits weakened by benefit cuts.

The determined efforts of the enemies of Social Security to sacrifice the program on the altar of deficit reduction have been frustrated, at least for the moment. Social Security came out of 2011 without cuts to the protections of present and future beneficiaries. Having halted the offense, 2012 should be the year of switching to offense ourselves. At this momentary interlude in the action, let’s recap the politics of Social Security in 2011.

December 2010, one year ago: The Bowles-Simpson Commission, appointed by President Obama to compile a deficit reduction plan, failed to secure the required “Supermajority” – 14 out of 18 votes – to officially recommend a plan to Congress. However, the two co-chairs themselves produced a report that included proposals to substantially cut Social Security and radically alter its structure.These proposals included raising the retirement age to 69, reducing cost of living adjustment by adopting the chained-CPI, and slashing middle class benefits by a technical change to the benefit formula. Despite failing to gain the formal approval of the commission, the Bowles-Simpson report was hailed by media and political elites as a good starting point for the discussion. It would serve as such for many other deficit reduction plans to come in the coming months – even though the report itself acknowledged that Social Security does not contribute to the deficit.

January 2011: Concerned that the president would use his State of the Union address to announce plans to negotiate cuts in Social Security as part of an overall effort to place the nation’s financial “house” in order, advocates mounted a successful campaign to discourage the White House from taking such a position.A more tempered statement was included in the SOTU address.The president recognized the need to find “a bipartisan solution to strengthen Social Security for future generations…without putting at risk current retirees.” However, the president also promised to do it without “slashing benefits for future generations,” which left many advocates worried that that strong language left the door open for cuts which could be described as “less than slashing.” This would be the start of many mixed signals coming from the White House: on the one hand, the president seemed to publicly support the program, yet at the same time, offering various concessions in his negotiations with Republicans.

April 2011:

  • The friction over deficit reduction escalated when the President and Republicans barely struck an 11th-hour deal to avert a government shutdown, cutting $61 billion from discretionary programs. The Social Security Administration’s budget was drastically chopped by $1.7 billion, which required dozens of local hearing sites to be closed, increased the backlog for disability claims, and threatened future employee furloughs.
  • Congressman Paul Ryan proceeded with his radical proposal to convert Medicare to a voucher program and put Social Security on a fast-track to be reformed, which would have almost certainly included cuts and a higher retirement age. Seniors and Americans in general reacted negatively to the plan, and distaste for it is credited with helping Kathy Hochul win her special election in New York. The Republican House passed the Ryan budget, but as expected, it failed to pass the Senate.
  • Social Security advocates in Washington stepped up their organizing to defeat the Ryan budget. The Strengthen Social Security Campaign organized a series of events around the country, asking Congress “not to make us work ‘til we die,” opposing any increases to the Social Security retirement age or Medicare eligibility age. These actions culminated with the President proclaiming his strongest support for Social Security to date, admitting that it is “not the cause of the deficit,” a message advocates had been expounding for months.

Gang Wars, June/July 2011: Momentum for more budget cuts grew over the summer as various “gangs” of lawmakers put forth their deficit-reduction plans, all harmful for Social Security. The bipartisan ‘Gang of Six’ called for a reduction in the Social Security COLA, as did the team convened by Vice President Biden. The media solidified its elitist “consensus” that Social Security and Medicare cuts are all but inevitable, all the while painting advocates as unreasonable and short-sighted. Responding to the growing momentum for benefit cuts, Social Security advocates turned up the heat on politicians by channeling the voices of many Americans and their anger at Washington’s backroom deals.

Budget Battles, the sequel, August 2011: Matters came to a head in early August when Republicans demanded huge budget cuts in exchange for raising the nation’s debt ceiling, a necessary step to avoid defaulting on our loans. Several awful budget-cutting bills were defeated by progressive advocates: among them, a Balanced Budget Amendment to the Constitution, which would have nullified the $2.7 trillion Social Security Trust Fund, and Boehner’s Cut, Cap, and Balance Act, which would have necessitated massive cuts in Social Security and the rest of the budget. The final deal the President struck with Republicans cut $917 billion from the budget immediately and established an ominous Supercommittee to finish the job.

The Supercommittee Looms, September-November 2011: The 12-member Congressional Supercommittee, which met behind closed doors and potentially controlled the fate of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, was trouble from the start. For much of the time, it seemed almost inevitable that the committee would reach agreement on a backdoor cut to the cost-of-living-adjustment.Knowing that cuts to Social Security are massively unpopular, they hoped this change would be viewed as technical and thus uncontroversial. But advocates spread the word that the “chained-CPI,” as it was called, was no mere technical fix, but instead a benefit cut that would affect every single beneficiary (including current seniors). There were protests at the Capitol building, petitions drawing tens of thousands of signatures, and even a group of dancing seniors denouncing these cuts. Yet many members of the Supercommittee seemed determined to reach some sort of deal, with Democrats offering up the baby, the bathwater, and the entire tub to Republicans in order to reach an agreement. But as every Supercommittee plan we saw included the chained-CPI, we realized that no deal would be better for the American people than one that put the hammer to social programs (again). Amazingly, the 325 national and state organizations composing the Strengthen Social Security Campaign, along with our champions in Congress and other advocates, won the day. The Supercommittee talks collapsed just before Thanksgiving.

The Uncertain Future, December 2011 and beyond: The journey has not been easy thus far, and the path ahead will be just as formidable. Despite the successes all year in preventing cuts to Social Security, as long as there are many in Congress intent on cutting the program, it will not be out of the woods.

2012 will be a crucial year for Social Security.The extension of the two percentage point cut in employee payroll tax contributions, is moving the program’s financing into unchartered waters.

The GOP presidential candidates are even more radical than Congress has been, with all the major candidates supporting partially privatizing Social Security and at least four calling for the retirement age to be raised (Bachmann, Perry, Romney, Santorum). Remarkably, four are also on record for calling Social Security a “fraud” or “Ponzi scheme” (Bachmann, Gingrich, Perry, Romney).

While the successes of Social Security advocates may have flown under the radar in 2011, they have been very real – and they set the stage for going on offense in 2012. We can now turn our attention to strengthening the program’s financing and benefit protections for future generations.

In the end, 2011 showed the power that a strong coalition working together can have on Washington. Hundreds of organizations and their members were able to defeat several serious threats to Social Security. In 2012, they will begin to recast the politics of Social Security in ways that can begin to restore government to its proper role of improving the lives of the American people.