Social Security's defenders wary of deficit reduction commission

By Lori Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 9, 2010

One of the oddest Web posts making the rounds in Washington is a series of blurry videos from Capitol Hill showing people coming and going from a closed-door meeting of President Obama's new deficit commission.

The mundane scenes have a sinister cast for activists who say the commission is at work on a secret plan to gut Social Security. Nancy Altman, whose group, Social Security Works, shot the footage, says the threat to the nation's primary social safety net is greater now than at any time in the program's 75-year history.

"This is going to affect every single American if they reach agreement," she said. "People need to know what's going on."

The heated rhetoric is an ominous sign for Obama's deficit-fighting task force, which is charged with developing a bipartisan plan to stabilize the soaring national debt. Adjusting Social Security benefits is a likely point of consensus, commission members say. Now, some of the same activists who helped derail a 2005 GOP plan to restructure the program are threatening to rally the public against any proposal to cut benefits.

Their campaign to take Social Security off the commission's agenda has so far been limited to op-eds, online postings and thousands of postcards to lawmakers. But AARP, which lobbies on behalf of people over 50, recently fired a warning shot, urging the commission not to "unfairly target hard-earned benefits of millions of Americans." And several groups, including and the Campaign for America's Future, are threatening to make Social Security an issue in the midterm elections.

"It's likely to be a pretty full court press," said MoveOn campaign director Daniel Mintz, whose group plans to ask candidates to sign a pledge opposing Social Security cuts. "We're going to demand solutions to the deficit that make corporations and the rich pay their fair share of taxes, rather than cutting benefits and squeezing the middle class."

The issue has already surfaced on the campaign trail. In Arkansas, where incumbent Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D) faced a tough primary runoff Tuesday, challenger Bill Halter ran TV ads accusing her of once voting to cut Social Security and Medicare.

"It will hurt Democrats if Democrats are seen as the party cutting Social Security benefits," said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future. "We're trying to prevent them from doing bad policy and bad politics."

The No. 1 expense

Budget experts say it would be difficult to significantly reduce future deficits without addressing the rising cost of Social Security. Benefit checks already make up the government's single largest annual expenditure -- just ahead of the Pentagon -- and the program's cost is forecast to grow rapidly as members of the enormous baby boom generation embark on a lengthy retirement expected to extend, on average, into their 80s.

"We have scheduled our system to have roughly one-third of the adult population on Social Security for one-third of their adult lives," said Eugene Steuerle, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. "Is your 20th year in retirement a higher priority than educating your kids in the schools? Right now, our budget says yes."

Over the past month, deficit commission members have begun meeting in small working groups, including one subpanel, chaired by former Clinton budget director Alice Rivlin and Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), dedicated to Social Security. Other panels are focusing on other entitlement programs, such as Medicare, an even bigger budget problem, as well as discretionary spending and the tax system. If 14 of the commission's 18 members reach agreement on a deficit-reduction plan, congressional leaders have pledged to put it to a vote after the fall elections.

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