Program

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Congress and the Politics of Aging

September 13, 2005 // 3:00pm5:00pm

A panel of two House members, a journalist, and a scholar agreed that it is difficult under ordinary circumstances to make changes in Social Security given the political activism and resistance of seniors to change the system. But some panelists agreed that it was even more difficult today given the time and resources being devoted to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the president's sagging approval ratings, and a general feeling of insecurity and uncertainty among Americans over the economy, jobs, gas prices, and Iraq.

However, Representative Jim McCrery (R-La.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee's Subcommittee on Social Security, warned that "we are facing a crunch time in the financing of programs for the aging….In the not too distant future we will be down to just two wage earners supporting one Social Security recipient, and I would submit the pay-as-you-go system will not be enough. We could do nothing, and then cut benefits drastically. At some point, though, we will have to make changes in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to live within the means of society." McCrery predicted that if the changes are not made this year, they will be next year or in the next Congress.

Representative Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.), said the larger issue in the politics of aging is what he called "the longevity risk," which is that we will outlive our assets. People are living longer and spending more time in retirement. But many will find that their savings and retirement benefits will not be sufficient to support them through these longer periods of life after retirement. "We're in a very different day," he said. "I doubt that FDR thought, when he signed Social Security into law in 1935, that one of the hazards of life would be living too long." Pomeroy observed that many conservative think tanks view the financial problems of Social Security as requiring benefit cuts, when what we should be thinking about is guaranteeing our citizens "a guaranteed income for life" through a combination of retirement benefits, Social Security, and private savings. However, Pomeroy argued that it was wrong to make private savings accounts an alternative to maintaining current levels of Social Security benefits, as the President has proposed. That would alter "the defined benefit character of the program which is the key to its success and survival."

Andrea Campbell, assistant professor of political science at M.I.T., presented a paper in which she advanced the thesis that policies produce politics, rather than the other way around. In the case of Social Security, there was not a big elderly lobby pushing for this back in 1935. It has only been since World War II when the value of Social Security increased by nearly 300 percent between 1950 and 1995, that a seniors lobby grew around the program. Senior citizens today "are the most participatory group in American politics," she observed. They have a higher stake in the system with Medicare and Social Security. These policies of increased benefits increased their participation in the political system, and "this has a way of feeding on itself in an upward spiral." Seniors not only have the highest participation rate in voting of any age group, but contribute more to campaigns and are more likely to contact their Members of Congress. This gives them a disproportionate amount of clout when the debate is over programs that directly benefit them. Lower-income seniors, she said, are likely to be even more active because their benefits constitute a higher portion of their total income. Higher-income seniors, on the other hand, have a 10 percent lower support level for Social Security than low-income seniors.

Gail Chaddock senior congressional correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, said she was even surprised to find two members of Congress from different political parties sitting at the same table discussing the problems of Social Security. "Social Security is fiendishly complex. It's difficult for journalists to convince their editors to run stories on the problem; it's difficult to explain to the general public; and it's also difficult for politicians to take this on, since it is a subject that is characterized by fear." Chaddock said "that the money on both sides of the issue is formidable." She noted when Members of Congress were asked by their leaders to discuss this with their constituents over the August recess, there were groups prepared to send protesters into the Members' districts when they learned a Member was going to raise the subject. "Anyone who looks at the demographics knows we are headed into something that is unsustainable, and that something needs to be done—but not today." She said one proposal that bears watching is Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas's plan to look at the entire problem, including insecure private pension plans, and tackle the problem of senior security in a more coherent and comprehensive fashion.

In answer to a question of how he intended to build a public consensus for any solution, McCrery ventured that that might not be possible, and that it might be a situation in which the Congress had to lead to get something done in the national interest. When Pomeroy was asked whether Democrats would participate in any committee deliberations on a bill that included personal investment accounts as part of Social Security, he responded, "Oh, we'll participate…but we'll shoot the holy h--- out of it."

 

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