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In a townhall meeting

In a townhall meeting on Social Security in Beverly Shores this week, Rep. Chris Chocola (R) of Indiana got a question many members have been getting this week. A constituent asked why we can't raise or eliminate the payroll tax cap as a way to strengthen the Social Security system and ensure its long-term solvency. Chocola responded, according to the local paper, that "that would buy about seven years but he is looking for long-term solutions."

Well, that's just not true. Or, if you want to say it's true because it's vague, it is nonetheless highly misleading.

Let me explain.

Earlier today we noted a new actuarial memo put out by the Social Security administration. The memo looks at 18 potential 'fixes' and examines how long each would extend the solvency of the program. For our purposes, we'll focus on #14, which looks at how the outlook would change if the payroll tax cap were eliminated (ed.note: The table in question can be found on page 18 of the linked pdf document.)

What does it say?

It says that whereas the Trust Fund is scheduled to be exhausted in 2042 under current law, this change would keep the system solvent through 2079 (ed.note: under SSA scoring procedures they don't go past 75 years, thus the date 2079).

In 2079, the Trust Fund would be shrinking. But measured as a percentage of the annual budget of Social Security it would be slightly larger than it is now. Now, I don't know about you but that sounds like it extends solvency considerably past 37 years, not 7 years.

Another way of putting this is to say that simply making this one change, getting rid of the cap, would extend the solvency of Social Security well beyond the lifetimes of almost anyone living today.

So what the hell is Chocola talking about?

Chocola is talking about the year that you have to start drawing money out of the Trust Fund, i.e., the 2018 date folks are always talking about.

Now, you might figure that the two numbers should be about the same -- put off dipping into the Trust Fund for seven years and you put off when it runs out of money by about seven years. But the Social Security actuaries' estimates show clearly that that is not true.

Now, two points. First, there are a lot of complexities and ins-and-outs behind those magic dates of 2018 and 2042. But as long as those are our benchmarks, removing the cap makes a very big deal. And Chocola isn't levelling with his constituents. Second, it's not just Chocola -- he's got his own unique portfolio of shenanigans we'll be discussing later. But this 'seven years' line is being used by virtually every Republican holding townhalls this week. And they are seldom being called on it. In fact, I bet will hear it several times on the Sunday shows. And I wonder if anyone will contradict it.

Late Update: I now see that Duncan Black (aka Atrios) has already been addressing this point -- particularly reporters' failure to call people on it -- in two excellent pieces (one and two) at Media Matters.

Now Rep. McCrery R

Now Rep. McCrery (R) of Louisiana needs a helping hand?

Seems like just a few weeks ago McCrery was saying: "The AARP and the Democrats think if you divert some money from the trust fund [the existing program will be undermined] That is true on its face. It does decrease the level of the trust fund. Politically, that's going to be a very strong tool that (opponents) can use to defeat a plan."

Now he says he's eager to get to work doing just that.

And now President Bush says he's going to come to McCrery's district to spread the good news about private accounts.

But is McCrery happy to see him?

The announcement triggered this response from McCrery, who seems to have some odd rhetorical ambivalence wedged down deep in his soul: "This trip to Shreveport should be seen not having anything to do with my role in the process. It should be seen as another stop in the president's journey that there's a need for change in the Social Security system."

Just another stop on the president's journey to private accounts nirvana.

Representative Tom Davis R

Representative Tom Davis (R) of Virginia has been hovering around the edges of the Conscience Caucus for some time. We <$NoAd$>may even reevaluate his status. He hasn't so much expressed reservations on policy grounds. But he's close to a go-to-guy for the press when they want a quote from a Republican saying that privatization could be a disaster for the GOP.

Back on the 19th he told the LA Times: "The situation is fluid, but it has the potential to blow up. I'm going to keep my mouth shut." For which you can at least give him credit for a level of candor.

Here's a bit of an article that appeared yesterday in a local paper ...

"As a practical matter, 2018 is a tipping point," [Davis] said. "You don't want to be there because you'll be cutting education and defense. Every year you wait, it becomes a little tougher." Davis said he is not sure about private accounts, though he said they do not help the program's solvency.

Ideally, he would like to avoid raising taxes to pay for social security and would also like to avoid cutting future benefits as well.

"I've got a healthy dose of skepticism," he said. "But I applaud the president for identifying the problems with the program."

Sounds like he's kind of on the fence.

We note that Davis is having townhall meetings tomorrow around the district -- in Falls Church, Fairfax and Prince William.

And these folks are holding a rally to greet him in Fairfax and ask him to stand up against phasing out Social Security.

Theyve got an angleThe

They've got an angle?

The promo for the League of the South's new Grey Book: Blueprint for an Independent South says the book explains "How an independent South would handle the Social Security debacle."

Everybody wants to get into the act.

Remember those postings on

Remember those postings on Craig's List, purporting to be from the Social Security Administration and seeking participants for focus groups on Social Security privatization?

It seems like a case of fraud and of a rather serious sort.

This morning we received an email from a reader who had responded to the posting and got back an email explaining how to participate and giving him a form to fill out. On its face, the response and the form looked like about what you'd expect: some boilerplate about what the focus groups would be like and a form asking for various personal and demographic information about the potential participant.

The email was 'signed' by someone claiming to be from the Social Security administration.

Based on this I called the SSA press office early this afternoon. And an hour or so later I received a call back from Mark Lassiter, the press officer. Lassiter told me in no uncertain terms that these focus group postings and emails are "not being done by SSA or anyone working on SSA's behalf."

He went on to say that there are two main issues of concern to them. First, someone appears to be impersonating SSA personnel, which is a crime. Second, the fact that these follow-up emails are being sent out suggests that this is more than just an attempt to spoof SSA but possibly some sort of identity theft scam (the form requests name, birthdate, social security number, etc.)

Lassiter tells TPM that his office has requested that the SSA Inspector General investigate the matter.

Whats wrong with this

What's wrong with this picture?

Social Security has seven 'Trustees'.

Five of the Trustees serve ex-officio, i.e., they're automatically a Trustee because of their office -- like the Treasury Secretary, Labor Secretary, etc.

One of the two who were appointed directly is Thomas R. Saving. If you look here you'll see that he was a Trustee in 2004 and I've just confirmed with the SSA that he remains a Trustee for 2005.

Yet, according to this morning's Houston Chronicle, he has just signed on to be an advisor and spokesman for one of the lead pro-Social Security phase-out astroturf groups, Progress for America.

Are his duties as a Trustee compatible with going to work for Progress for America?

John Harwoods squib on

John Harwood's squib on Social Security from today's WSJ Washington Wire (sub. required) ...

PRESSURE RISES on Social Security.

A senior Bush adviser sees "ice breaking" around opposition of some Democrats to the administration plan. Fellow Democrats, chafing at Lieberman's flirtation with Bush, circulate his criticism of "risky private accounts" in the run-up to his 2004 presidential run.

Despite White House courting, Democratic Sen. Nelson of Nebraska is unlikely to embrace Bush's private-account plan, an associate predicts. House Democratic campaign committee seeks donations to fuel "caught-on-tape" drive to weaken Republican members by publicizing alleged flip-flops on the issue.

Plan B? Republicans insist Bush could "win" without legislation by hitting "anti-reform" Democrats.

On point one, I've watched this crew long enough to know the MO. So I don't think there's any <$Ad$>reason to believe this 'senior Bush adviser' is doing anything but talking out of an orifice other than his mouth. Their whole angle is say they're holding more cards than they are to push their opponents off balance.

But why not be careful? As we've said, I think two members of the Graham senate book club are looking to make a deal. And I think their angle is to fiddle with the payroll tax as a way to let their faint little hearts get to that Holy Grail of Faintheartedness, the prized private accounts. That's what they want to do and I think that's what they're trying to do.

I talk to various of Sen. Lieberman's political friends and we wonder between ourselves: What is it exactly? Is he just a man out of time now? Too stung by how the 2004 primaries went and just doesn't care what Dems think? Or maybe he thinks he's legislating for history here. A lot of folks who are generally in line with Lieberman, and like him, ended up not supporting him in the primaries because they worried not about his political views but about his political judgment. So the irony here is that he's displaying the same political tin ear and questionable judgment that kept many like-minded Dems from supporting him. And their very lack of support stung him so badly that it has accentuated those tendencies that kept them off the Joe team to begin with.

And remember, I'm not talking about John Sweeney or Andy Stern here. I'm talking about card-carrying New Dems.

Just this morning I was talking with some political players involved in the Social Security fight and they were wondering how quickly a few hundred thousand dollars of seed money could be raised to fund a decent primary opponent to run against Lieberman next year. And I have to say, I think they could raise it pretty quickly.

After half a decade without any senators to represent me, I'm happy to have two I can call my own again. And luckily, Schumer and Clinton are strong supporters of Social Security. But if I lived in Connecticut and my own senator ended up deep-sixing Social Security all by himself, I'd certainly support someone who challenged him. Actually, I'd happily see him replaced by a Republican if that's what it came to.

Millions rely on Social Security, a right earned through a lifetime of work. It's a compact between citizens and between generations. And like all truly good legislation it makes for good policy and good politics. One senator from Connecticut is a small thing when weighed in that balance.

He's the deal-maker. All the signs are showing it.

Sen. Lieberman's popular in Connecticut. But there must be some folks in Connecticut who support Social Security too.