Correction to This Article
An earlier version of this article contained several incorrect identifications in a photo caption that appeared online. Rep. Robert Doughton (D-N.C.) was misidentified as Representative Boughton, Rep. Frank Buck (D-Calif.) was misidentified as E.A. Witte, and Rep. David J. Lewis (D-Md.) was misidentified as Representative Bowis.

Social Security Debate Has Echoes of 1935

SLUG: F/FDR  DATE: Flatbed scan 04/25/2005 (EEL)  CREDIT: Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University  CAPTION: President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act, August 14, 1935. (left to right) Representative Boughton, E.A. Witte, Senator Wagner, Senator LaFollette, Senator Lonergan, Secretary of Labor Perkins, Senator King, Representative Bowis, and Senator Guffey.
SLUG: F/FDR DATE: Flatbed scan 04/25/2005 (EEL) CREDIT: Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University CAPTION: President Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act, August 14, 1935. (left to right) Representative Boughton, E.A. Witte, Senator Wagner, Senator LaFollette, Senator Lonergan, Secretary of Labor Perkins, Senator King, Representative Bowis, and Senator Guffey. (Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University)
By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 26, 2005

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt returned to Washington on April 9, 1935, tanned and rested from a two-week fishing trip off Florida, he learned that the House of Representatives was in turmoil over his Social Security legislation.

That night, House Speaker Joseph Wellington Byrns and Ways and Means Committee Chairman Robert L. Doughton met with the president at the White House to warn him that the plan risked being scuttled by both radical Democrats, who favored a vastly larger handout to the aged, and Republicans, who opposed any government pension plan. They told him they needed his help to get the plan through Congress.

Three days later, Roosevelt delivered. At a news conference, the popular president stepped up public pressure for passage of the entire plan, including the controversial payroll tax to pay old-age benefits. "This title is the most important thing in this bill," he said. "When you strike at this title, you strike at the keystone of the arch of the Social Security program."

A week later, the House easily passed Roosevelt's plan. A Washington Post article at the time described "window rattling cheers" in the chamber and blocs of lawmakers who shouted down one another's amendments as Roosevelt's "New Deal floor command" enacted Social Security.

Roosevelt's struggles in 1935 were in some ways similar to President Bush's attempt to steer a revised Social Security program through Congress in 2005 -- but their legislative styles are vastly different.

Like FDR's, Bush's party enjoys control of both chambers of Congress, though by smaller margins. Like FDR, Bush confronts a public that favors costlier alternatives to his plan. Like FDR, Bush is engaged in a major public relations effort to sell his plan. And, like Roosevelt, Bush faces a great challenge in unifying his own party in support of his proposal.

But Bush, trying to replace part of Social Security with individual accounts, is approaching the situation differently than Roosevelt did in 1935. Roosevelt presented Congress with a highly detailed proposal developed by a Cabinet-level committee, and it passed Congress relatively intact. Bush, by contrast, has left it to Congress to work out the details, providing it only with broad guidelines.

Also, FDR's proposal was a compromise that split the difference between a more radical plan favored by many in his own party and the business-generated opposition in the other party. Although many view Roosevelt's legislation as a triumph for the left, developing a vastly expanded concept of the federal government, it is fair to say that his plan prevented passage of a more radical scheme that had broad popular support. Bush, by contrast, has sided with those in his party who have proposed the most far-reaching changes to the program, pitting him against GOP moderates and virtually all Democrats.

Roosevelt sought to cool the passions in his own party, whereas Bush is trying to kindle passion in his party. "In 1934, Congress tilted decisively to the left [and] Roosevelt was more moderate than lots of people in Congress," historian Robert Dallek said. Bush, by contrast, "is more to the right" on Social Security than many of his GOP colleagues in the House.

Aiming for Moderation

Bush's challenge is to build public support for his private accounts. Roosevelt had the task of preventing a more radical Social Security plan from becoming law. Emerging from a depression in which unemployment hit 25 percent, 18 million sought public relief and 9 million remained jobless, the country was clamoring for retirement security. Populist Sen. Huey P. Long (D-La.) proposed a "Share Our Wealth" plan that would redistribute all private fortunes to Americans in need. Another populist, Francis Townsend, wanted to tax all business transactions to give $200 a month to elderly Americans if they agreed not to work.

Roosevelt, who ran on a "work and security" platform in 1932, wanted to avoid anything that looked like the handouts for those on the dole in Europe. That put him at odds with some of his own aides, such as Harry Hopkins, and liberal Democratic Senate leaders, such as Robert F. Wagner, who favored generous relief payments. Roosevelt, in the summer of 1934, formed a Committee on Economic Security to devise legislation for a self-sustaining, insurance-style program for the unemployed and the aged that would reduce the need for handouts.

"A program developed by a committee of the cabinet would be under his control," wrote Frances Perkins, who as labor secretary chaired the committee. "It would not be likely to get off into the kind of political discussion and publicity that might breed doubt and delay." Their instructions were to develop a largely self-financing program that would help the elderly, the unemployed, the disabled, and dependent mothers and children -- but avoid the extravagance of the Long and Townsend plans, which Roosevelt feared. "One hardly realizes nowadays how strong was the sentiment in favor of the Townsend plan," Perkins wrote in her 1946 memoir.


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