Durbin’s inaccurate account of GOP support for Social Security

September 17, 2013

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“There is a chorus of naysayers out there in the Republican party. It’s a rich tradition they have. In 1936, when Franklin Roosevelt came up with Social Security, a Republican filibuster stopped FDR from funding the offices and personnel he needed to implement it. In addition to that, Alf Landon, the Republican candidate for president said, ‘My first act of office will be to abolish Social Security.’ ”

 — Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Sept. 16, 2013

In explaining why the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, continues to be unpopular with many Americans, Sen. Durbin cited the unrelenting attacks by Republicans. But then he ventured into some historical fantasy to illustrate what he called the GOP’s “rich tradition” of not accepting new social programs.

Let’s look at what really happened.

The Facts

Social insurance originated in Germany in 1889, at the behest of Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, and the United States was relatively slow to adopt the concept. Indeed, it was not Franklin Roosevelt but his one-time Republican cousin Theodore Roosevelt who first called for adopting social insurance in a speech in 1912. For those who think Congress works slowly today, note that that Franklin Roosevelt was not able to sign the Social Security Act until 1935.

But in contrast to the Affordable Care Act — which passed without a single Republican vote in either the Senate or the House — the passage of Social Security was quite bipartisan (in an era when Democrats enjoyed large majorities in both chambers.)

In the House, 284 Democrats and 81 Republicans supported the bill, compared to 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans who opposed it. In the Senate, 60 Democrats and 16 Republicans supported the bill, with just one Democrat and five Republicans opposed. (Update: A reader correctly points out that before this final vote, at the committee level there were significant efforts by Republican lawmakers to change or gut the old-age provisions of the bill.)

“Although Social Security was the initiative of a Democratic president, by the time the bill arrived on the floor of Congress a substantial bipartisan majority had developed in its favor,” says an official history of the Social Security administration. “It would be fair to say that at its inception Social Security was a bipartisan program, and has been so for most of its history.”

With that kind of support, why would Republicans filibuster the funding, as Durbin claims? Well, actually, they did not.

The filibuster cited by Durbin was conducted by Sen. Huey Long of Louisiana — a Democrat to the left of FDR — and he was arguing for additional funds for cotton and wheat farmers; money to implement Social Security just happened to be in the same bill. This was Long’s famous “swan song” filibuster, made during his last appearance in Congress; he was assassinated a few weeks later.

In any case, the delay in the funding bill did not hold up Social Security. Roosevelt simply moved some funds from the Labor Department until a permanent appropriations bill could be passed when Congress came back into session a few months later.

As for Alf Landon, the Kansas governor and GOP nominee in the 1936 election, the truth is more complicated than saying he simply wanted to repeal the law.

Landon actually supported most of Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives and in effect had to be drafted to run against him. He also did not oppose Social Security, but he was dismayed at how it was financed — through payroll deductions from workers’ paychecks, which were used to pay current beneficiaries in exchange for government bonds that would be used to pay the workers when they retired. Landon wanted to finance Social Security out of general revenues and he did not want benefits to be tied to wages.

“There is every probability that the cash they pay in will be used for current deficits and new extravagances,” Landon warned in a critique of the Social Security trust funds that won favor with the editorial page of The New York Times at the time. “We are going to have trouble enough to carry out an economy program without having the Treasury flush with money drawn from the workers.”

(Want to know more about the financing of Social Security? Read our popular Social Security primer.)

As Landon put it in his convention acceptance speech, “We shall amend the Social Security Act to make it workable. We recognize that society, acting through government, must afford as large a measure of protection as it can against involuntary unemployment and dependency in old age. We pledge that the Federal Government will do its proper share in that task.”

Still, Landon’s proposed changes likely would doomed Social Security, as it might have been perceived as another welfare program–making it easier to later eliminate. Roosevelt’s financing structure, which tapped into workers’s wages, was designed to show Americans that everyone had contributed fairly to the program.

In the heat of the campaign, moreover, Landon called Social Security “a fraud on the working man” and a “cruel hoax” on workers. This harsh rhetoric prompted the first head of Social Security, a Republican named John G. Winant, to resign from his post so he could actively campaign against the nominee of his own party.  Winant eventually endorsed FDR.

Landon was defeated in a massive landslide. “Afterward Landon conceded that his attack on Social Security had been a mistake,” the Social Security history says. “Subsequently he went on record against any attempt to dismantle Social Security.”

Max Gleischman, a spokesman for Durbin, said the senator was relying on the book “Citizens of London,” by Lynne Olson, which focuses on Americans who supported Britain at the start of World War II. One key character is Winant, who after helping FDR in the 1936 election eventually became U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom.

The book is a great read, but the brief section on Winant’s involvement in Social Security barely does justice to the complex issue — and it does not label Long’s filibuster as a “Republican filibuster.” Presumably Durbin simply leaped to that conclusion.

Durbin “was making the point that attempts to defund Social Security in the 1930s are similar to attempts to defund/repeal Obamacare today,” Gleischman said. “Initially unpopular programs were implemented despite obstruction and attempts to delay and went on to become – in Social Security’s case – the most popular government run program.”

The Pinocchio Test

Durbin has mischaracterized the history of GOP support for Social Security. In contrast to his depiction of filibuster and delay, the law passed with Republican support and there was no effort by Republicans in Congress to thwart its funding through a filibuster. The GOP candidate for president did make the financing of Social Security an election issue — a debate that continues to this day.

Durbin might want to consult something other than a history of the Battle of Britain for information on Social Security. (UPDATE: Durbin later acknowledged his error on the Senate floor.)

Three Pinocchios

 


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.
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Glenn Kessler · September 16, 2013