Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Here would be some time very well spent.

We've noted before that the "on hold" recording that now plays when you call the Social Security Administration includes thinly-veiled Bush administration propaganda about Social Security's insolvency and the need for "long range changes" in the program, and the sooner the better. Similar verbiage is now contained in the mailings that the SSA sends out to all Americans who pay into the system, describing their lifetime earnings and projected benefits.

And I'm told that this soft pro-privatization propaganda has been getting more pointed over the last three years, even as the actuaries at SSA have been reporting that the predicted Social Security funding shortfalls are receding further and further into the future.

So here's the idea -- one that takes on even more timeliness with the revelations today about the administration and Armstrong Williams: why not prepare a well-crafted FOIA request to the SSA requesting any and all documents relating to the preparation and authorship of the increasingly pro-privatization boilerplate that appears and plays on the SSA's various mailings and phone recordings?

Go back to 2001 and bring it up until today.

Who will do it?

Courtesy of Atrios, this from USA Today ...

Seeking to build support among black families for its education reform law, the Bush administration paid a prominent black pundit $240,000 to promote the law on his nationally syndicated television show and to urge other black journalists to do the same.

The campaign, part of an effort to promote No Child Left Behind (NCLB), required commentator Armstrong Williams "to regularly comment on NCLB during the course of his broadcasts," and to interview Education Secretary Rod Paige for TV and radio spots that aired during the show in 2004.

Williams said Thursday he understands that critics could find the arrangement unethical, but "I wanted to do it because it's something I believe in."

I can't say I'm too exercised <$Ad$> one way or another about Armstrong Williams' professional ethics, or lack thereof. But taxpayer money for this? This sounds like it's clearly political work. Perhaps that fat Bush-Cheney campaign fund should reimburse the taxpayers. If the White House wants to fully fund Armstrong Williams instead of the NCLB bill, let them do it on their own dime.

PS. This also gets us back to the issue of OpEd payola, which we discussed back in March 2002 and at other times. This was a topic I was collecting information on for years, but so far at least never got around to writing. As I said in that earlier post, many more OpEds than you'd imagine are bought and paid for. At a few of the premium dailies it's hard to pull off. But beyond those it's pretty common, though often without the editors even being aware of it. There are even a few prominent papers known by those in the business to be an easy (and willing) mark.

A new member of the Senate's Fainthearted Faction: Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas.

Notwithstanding Sen. Arlen Specter's declared opposition to a private-accounts-based Social Security phase-out, Sen. Lindsey Graham is putting together a working group of six senators (seven, including Graham) "seek[ing] agreement on a bipartisan blueprint for shoring up Social Security, preferably before President Bush outlines his plan and partisan lines harden in Congress."

So reports Thursday's Wall Street Journal.

The six include 2 Republicans and 4 Democrats. And Graham is holding the meetings with the "encouragement" of the White House.

The Senators are Republicans Charles Grassley of Iowa and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire. The Democrats are Max Baucus of Montana, Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Joe Lieberman of Connecticut and Ben Nelson of Nebraska.

In March 2002, Sen. Lieberman called "privatization" a "dangerous mistake."

"Social Security privatization," he said, "would take away the safety from the safety net, and turn the idea of a rainy day fund into a sink or swim proposition."

"We understand Social Security's economic value and appreciate its moral value," he wisely observed, "and that we won't let it be diluted, dismantled or dissolved."

I couldn't agree more. And yet the president has made clear that any plan must include privatization, a private-accounts-based partial phase-out of Social Security.

So what is there to talk about exactly?

On October 21st 1998, when first running for senate, Sen. Lincoln called privatization "dangerous" and made opposition to it a key plank in her campaign.

So, again, what is there to talk about?

Why are we picking on Faction newcomer Sen. Lincoln and not Sen. Baucus, you ask?

Because Baucus seems to have bailed out. Notwithstanding his participation in the meetings, the Times reports Baucus "said on Thursday that he would oppose the president's Social Security plan this year."

In an interview with the Times, Baucus, who provided the president key support on the 2001 tax cut bill and the Medicare bill, said, ""I seriously doubt I'm going to be the linchpin this time ... [private accounts will] exacerbate the problem, not solve it."

Meanwhile, according to the Washington Post, a telling division is emerging between Senate and House Republicans.

While Senators like Chuck Grassley, Lindsey Graham and others believe the "White House should leave it to Congress to work quietly on a bipartisan Social Security package that is not explicitly the president's," House leaders are sending a very different message. According to the Post, they're insisting that "the president has to issue a detailed plan to restructure Social Security and add personal investment accounts, then sell it himself before he could possibly hope to get broad Republican support."

And what's the big difference between the Senate and the House? Right. The folks in the House all have to face the voters next year. Most in the senate don't have to for three or five years. And the president never.

And as long as we're on the subject, which party seems more divided over this issue?

Alberto Gonzales believes that the president can immunize individuals for committing acts of torture and that he has the power to authorize violations of criminal law. That's how Chris Suellentrop interprets what Gonzales said today on the Hill in Slate. And he makes a very persuasive case.

And this is the man who will soon be the highest ranking law enforcement officer in the land.

It defies comment.

Here's an overnight Associated Press piece entitled "Bush Pledges to Lead on Social Security." It has most of what you'd expect and then <$NoAd$> this ...

Though Republicans have increased their majority in both houses, changes would require clearing a hurdle of 60 votes in the Senate.

Underscoring that difficulty, Sen. Arlen Specter, a prominent Republican moderate, has expressed his opposition to cuts in promised Social Security benefits for future retirees

"I strongly oppose this approach," Specter says in a letter on his official Web site. The Pennsylvania Republican did not state a position on investment accounts.

No position on private accounts? Try digging a little deeper. As we reported earlier today, Sen. Specter has taken a very definitive position on privatization and private accounts: He's against them.

In the penultimate graf of the letter his office is currently sending out in response to queries from constituents, Specter writes ...

On the issue of privatization, I had some time ago considered an idea to place a relatively small portion of benefits in an investment account, providing that the “security” aspect of Social Security was retained and the investment was under professional management. However, with the severe fluctuations of the stock market, I have since rejected that idea.

And this is as you'd expect since this is the position he clearly enunciated during the campaign this year when he was running against Rep. Joe Hoeffel. As he said at the WTAE-TV debate in Pittsburgh on October 2nd, according to the AP ...

"At one time I had considered a small portion of Social Security in private accounts," Specter said during the hourlong debate at the WTAE-TV studio in Pittsburgh. But after a closer examination, "I think it is unwise," he said. "I believe the seniors ought to be reassured that their Social Security benefits are solid."

So notwithstanding the report in tonight's AP piece, I think Sen. Specter is being quite clear on his opposition to private accounts. He stated his opposition during the heat of the campaign. And he's making the point now even more clearly in the letter he's sending constituents, now that he doesn't have to face voters against for another six years, if then even. As Specter himself says, he has "rejected" the idea of private accounts.

This just keeps hanging out there. Part of the package in the complete evisceration of the House ethics rules, which the Republicans planned but then pulled back from passing, was canning Joel Hefley (R-CO) as Chairman of the Ethics Committee.

Hefley oversaw the serial admonishments of Rep. Tom DeLay. He disagreed with the DeLay Rule. And he thought the 'reforms' the House GOP caucus finally backed off passing were a bad idea. "This is not the way to effect meaningful reform. Ethics reform must be bipartisan and this package is not bipartisan," said Hefley.

So now the DeLay rules gone. And the ethics 'reforms', or most of them, are gone. But Hefley, well ... the grammatical symmetry doesn't work perfectly, but he's still gone too.

But there's a hold up, says the Post. No, there's no question that Hefley's out of there. But they can't make it official yet because Denny Hastert can't decide who to replace him with. "Hefley has fallen out of favor with GOP leaders and is not trusted by them to handle ethics cases that Democrats might bring against Republican lawmakers, according to aides," says the Post.

And the Post continues ...

One Republican official called Hefley's ouster "a defense measure." Aides said they did not know when the new chairman would be announced. By midweek, Hastert's staff had compiled a list of about 40 candidates.

A list of 40 candidates, eh? Sounds like they want someone really, really, really reliable. Defense measure, indeed.

A note from a reader ...

There are $1.8 trilliion <$NoAd$> in U.S. Treasury securities in the U.S. Social Security Trust Fund. It is imperative that the Democrats ask Bush whether he intends to honor that obligations and force him to make a public proclamation of his steadfast commitment to do so. The Democrats must take the lead in committing themselves to honor those obligations.

The Social Security Trust Fund is in fine shape with that $1.8 trillion dollar surplus.

It's the taxpayers obligation to the Trust Fund, (and the rest of the accumulated national debt that is the problem).

The Federal government should be paying down debt (not running $412 billion deficits) so it will have the borrowing capacity to pay off the obligations to the Trust Fund.


Not a bad idea. And the point the reader makes in the last graf is something everyone who is sane and can use a calculator should agree with. Come to think of it, that's what we were doing before George W. Bush became president ...

We're all familiar with the many blogs that follow the rough storms of national politics. But there's also an efflorescence of blogs that devote themselves to the politics of a particular state or city. I just heard today, for instance, about a new blog called Hall Monitor, run by the Time Argus/Rutland Herald Statehouse bureau chief, Darren Allen. In other words, if you want to follow Vermont politics, that'd probably be a good place to start.

Obviously, Allen is a professional newsman. But, just as on the national level, there are also a great number of passionate and committed amateurs who've set up their own sites to follow and/or affect politics in their neck of the woods.

Micah Sifry wants to set up a directory of these state and local blogs. So if you have one, or know of a good one, stop by here and drop him a line.

As we've said again and again, we're following the doings and shenanigans of the Fainthearted Faction for a very specific reason: we want all Democrats lined up in opposition to the president's Social Security phase-out bill, because that raises the stakes and puts the focus on those Republicans who might be scared to help phase-out Social Security without a good bit of bipartisan cover.

We don't want to assume only cynical motives. Some probably just don't want to be part of ending Social Security. And as we wrote late last month, that's why we're calling them the Conscience Caucus.

The concept is the same as the Fainthearted Faction, only inverted: these are the Republicans who seem most likely to leave President Bush waiting at the altar when he comes a'courtin' with his Social Security phase-out plan.

Now, we're pretty confident that the Caucus is going to be a good deal larger than the Faction. And many of those members are going to be reps. and senators who have their fingers to the wind and eyes on the polls seeing what looks safe and what doesn't. But today we've got a senator who seems to have committed himself to opposing the president's plan even before the whistle gets blown.

In response to constituent queries about his position on Social Security, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania just started sending out an email outlining his position. In the email he professes his support for the program, his enchantment with the lockbox and various other points.

But the heart of the note is contained in two paragraphs (emphasis added) ...

As the baby boomer population ages and enters into retirement, the need for Social Security reform becomes even more apparent. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan urged Congress in February of 2004 to deal with the country’s escalating budget deficit by cutting benefits for future Social Security retirees. I strongly oppose this approach.


On the issue of privatization, I had some time ago considered an idea to place a relatively small portion of benefits in an investment account, providing that the “security” aspect of Social Security was retained and the investment was under professional management. However, with the severe fluctuations of the stock market, I have since rejected that idea.

In the first graf quoted he rules out benefit cuts and in the second, unless I'm missing something, he categorically rules out privatization, i.e., private investment accounts funded by a carve-out from Social Security revenues.

So that's pretty much it. Specter isn't just in the Caucus. As long as he sticks by what he says in this letter to constituents, he's out of play completely for the president.

(Hold on to that Chairmanship with both hands, Arlen.)