Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Even private-accounts-meister Newt Gingrich bagging on the crisis claim? "The combination of higher birth rates and more immigration makes the United States the healthiest of developed nations. This is not a crisis," says the former Speaker, according to Bloomberg.

Rep. Phil English (R) of Pennsylvania says Chairman Thomas "played a very important role in reminding those involved in the debate that there are number of things we can do that will improve the solvency from Social Security, quite apart from the creation of individual accounts. And he also correctly and directly made it clear that individual accounts by themselves will only marginally improve the performance of the system overall."

Private accounts will only "marginally improve" Social Security. Can we bank that quote?

As we noted a bit earlier this evening (or, I guess, this morning -- whatever), we very much doubt Reps. Thomas and McCrery are really as open as they seem to want Democrats to believe to leaving Social Security and its funding base intact and finding their money for private accounts from some other source.

But I was just chatting with TPM reader JK. And as he notes, if you take what the Ways and Means Republicans are saying at face value, it's really something to behold.

Under the new Ownership Society, apparently, Republicans are so dead-set on letting people control their own money that they're going to go out on to the international capital markets and borrow a few trillion dollars so they can give it out to people so they can put it into the stock market. Of course, if individuals are more inclined toward conservative investment strategies they can purchase bonds and thus lend back to the Treasury the money the Treasury just borrowed so they could put it in stocks.

Of course, perhaps we're assuming too much. Perhaps they aren't planning to borrow the money but rather come up with some big new tax that will generate funds that they can then give back to people to invest in the stock market.

We were about to start a Bob Rubin Watch, <$NoAd$>wondering when the Dems chief macro-economic policy mandarin would step up and give us his take on the president's phase-out bill. But our friend Sid Blumenthal gets him on the record to good effect ...

"It's a badly, badly flawed plan," Robert Rubin, the former secretary of the treasury and current Citigroup director, told me. "From a fiscal point of view it's horrendous. It adds to deficits and federal debt in very large numbers until 2060." He calculates that the transition costs of Bush's plan for the first 10 years will be at least $2 trillion, and $4.5 trillion for the second 10 years. The exploding deficit would have an "adverse effect on interest rates, an adverse effect on consumption and housing prices, reduce productivity and growth, and crowd out debt capital to the private sector. Markets could begin to lose confidence in fiscal policy. The soundness of social security will be worse".

Rubin adds that the stock market is hardly a sure bet. "You are not making social security more secure by subjecting people's retirement to equity risk. If you look at the Nikkei in Japan you get a sense of what can happen."

No member of the Faction he.

I guess Rubin's just too anti-market.

And remember, you don't need to be in Congress to be in the Fainthearted Faction. Associate memberships are available for other high-profile pols. Just ask Ed Rendell.

Hmmm. Republican Ways and Means Chair Bill Thomas says the Bush plan is a "dead horse". And Democratic backbencher Allen Boyd co-sponsors a private accounts bill with Rep. Jim Kolbe (R) of Arizona. So I guess both parties are equally disunited when it comes to the president's Social Security phase-out bill.

So says Tom Curry at the MSNBC website ...

At this point in the struggle over Social Security, neither Democrats nor Republicans are unified on what changes ought to be made. One Democrat, Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida, has signed on as a co-sponsor of Arizona Republican Rep. Jim Kolbe’s private accounts bill.

A Senate Democrat who will play an important role on the Senate Finance Committee, Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, has discussed Social Security options with Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who is trying to put together a bipartisan reform package.

A key House Republican offered some provocative views Wednesday. Ways and Means Committee chairman Rep. Bill Thomas opposed Kennedy’s idea of raising the FICA payroll tax. “Why do you have to fund it (Social Security) in that way? There are other ways to deal with the issue that are smarter.” This seemed to open the door to paying for Social Security from general revenue, an idea some Democrats also have favored.

Now, one might say that as the site keeping the rolls <$Ad$>current for the Fainthearted Faction and the Conscience Caucus, it is rather odd for us to deny that there is any internal disunity among Democrats on this issue.

But we are pressing -- and rightly so, I believe -- what can only be called a rather exacting (some chiefs of staff and press secretaries we've spoken to have used even more colorful or downright unkind phrases) standard for Democrats looking to exit the Fainthearted Faction. But it's certainly worth noting that every current member of the Faction -- with the exception of the poltroonish Boyd -- has spoken ill or skeptically of private accounts and says they're disinclined to support the president.

What they won't do is categorically say they don't support phasing out a portion of Social Security and replacing it with private accounts. They want to leave open a little wiggle room -- or in Sen. Lieberman's case more than that -- to give in to the president's blandishments and tender affections. And this, it seems to Mr. Curry, is the equivalent of a third of the GOP House caucus having panic attacks or breaking out in yet-to-be-diagnosed rashes when the word 'privatization' is mentioned.

I don't want to give the impression that that's the totality of Curry's article. He certainly addresses the Democrats clear opposition to the president's phase-out bill. Read the piece to get a full sense of what he's saying. But I think those three grafs speak for themselves.

In any case, this is one more reason why that band of ignominious wobblers, the Fainthearted Faction, should just be clear on whether they support a Social Security phase-out or not -- so reporters can't create misleading impressions about there being any equivalence between the disunity affecting Dems on this issue and that facing Republicans.

There's an extremely interesting, really a must-read article in Thursday's Post about the evolving Social Security debate.

The essential development is that, at least in the House Republican caucus, Ways and Means Chair Bill Thomas's (R) comments weren't just some off-the-cuff mutterings to be discarded in the next day's papers. They are now affirmed and expanded upon by Rep. Jim McCrery (R) of Louisiana, the newly seated Chairman of the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee.

Just what Thomas and McCrery mean though gets even murkier and one could draw very different conclusions about what they are proposing depending on which part of the article you read. The rest of this post may be tough sledding; and I apologize for that. But it's from doing the best I can to disentangle what I suspect are intentionally confusing reports from off the Hill.

The piece begins with what the Post describes as a growing realization among many Hill Republicans that getting money for private accounts out of payroll taxes now destined for Social Security just may not be workable because of the level of opposition that approach has already churned up. McCrery's tack is to get radical tax reform (i.e., a national sales tax or other ideas) back into the mix to open up different possibilities for funding private accounts.

But in the Post's telling it's maddeningly difficult to figure out whether the Ways and Means Republicans are talking about leaving Social Security and its payroll tax base alone and finding other ways to fund private accounts or wbether they are trying to put the entire federal tax code on the table, thus turning the entire debate, and whatever clarity it had, on its head.

Hypothetically, if the whole payroll tax system were scrapped or fundamentally changed, there'd be no clarity on what sort of plan was diverting money from Social Security taxes or not, since the whole funding base of the system would have been done away with and replaced with something else.

Clearly there are Republicans on the Hill who want to put some give back into this rapidly-tightening legislative knot and get their version of tax reform on the table while they're at it.

But wait, there's more.

In the second half of the article, the author chats up Democratic Social Security mavens Sperling, Orszag and Emanuel, who say this new tack from Republicans is a good thing. They then go on to lay out the Democrats position. For them, it's private accounts so long as they're on top of Social Security rather than carved out from Social Security revenues -- the position we've discussed here at TPM many times.

In the Post's description, "Social Security would remain essentially unchanged as a stable, defined retirement benefit, but benefits could be slightly reduced and taxes slightly raised through a variety of mechanisms to keep it solvent as baby boomers retire." And then they say McCrery calls this assessment "right on."

So wait, have McCrery and Thomas just ushered the entire Republican majority into the Conscience Caucus? They're agreeing to leave Social Security intact as a defined benefit, near-universal government program and they'll set up private accounts with new funds from somewhere else?

Somehow I doubt that's what they're agreeing to.

Luckily, there's no reason to think the White House or DeLay's folks would be negotiating in bad faith or anything.

"It is widely recognized that without reform to the current Social Security system, it has little chance of survival through the next several decades."

A snippet from the online push-poll Rep. John Kline (R) of Minnesota is hosting on his House website.

Big Truba fa Duba?

Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R) of California must be a pretty popular guy today at the White House. You can see the fun time Scott McClellan had today parrying questions from reporters about what it meant that the Chairman called the president's plan a "dead horse."

As a sign of how well it went, you can start with McClellan's out-of-the-box response: "Which proposal are you referring to, John?"

And it pretty much went down hill from there.

Not only did Thomas manage to utter what everyone has been thinking of late: that the president's proposal isn't doing very well and even a modern-day Diogenes would probably be hard pressed to find more than a few Hill Republicans who actually want, in their heart of hearts, the president to keep pushing this issue. In addition to that he managed to float a bunch of new winning ideas that Democrats can now attach to a senior member of the House GOP leadership. Great ideas like upping the retirement age for women since they don't die as soon as men -- an idea whose underlying premise can be rattled off in any number of ridiculous directions, as our friend Ed Kilgore demonstrates to his obvious delight.

In any case, with all the fun today, it took us a while to realize that Thomas had really given us no choice but to place him in the Conscience Caucus.

He's really not our prototypical member, mind you. And, at least from what I hear, with so much ego packed in that body, it's hard to know where to fit a conscience, let alone vital organs, imagination, a soul, carbon, water and whatever the other stuff is that most of us have within us as we shuffle around this mortal coil.

He's not saying he's against a phase-out, that he won't vote for it or that he's afraid of it. But whether we like it or not, when you say the president's phase-out plan is "DOA", you're Caucus-bound.

No two ways about it.

I don't want to upset anyone or cause any unnecessary emotional duress. But I think some of our Republican friends on Capitol Hill are trying to trick their constituents about their position on Social Security.

Yes, I know it's something none of us wants to think could happen. But bear with me.

Long-time readers of the site will remember that Republicans long called their plan to replace part of Social Security with private investment accounts 'privatization'. It was their word. They came up with it, embraced it, etc. That was until the 2002 election cycle came around and word went out from the NRCC to stop using the word 'privatization' and try as much as possible to get reporters to stop using it too.

Suddenly, 'privatization' was a slur, even though it was the Republicans' own word until word came down from party central to start zigging and by no means zag.

Orwellian word redefinition notwithstanding, however, for most folks the word 'privatization' still means 'private accounts'.

So here we have Rep. Mike Ferguson (R) of New Jersey. And his website says "Congressman Ferguson's principles on Social Security are clear: he opposes privatizing Social Security ..."

Nowhere does he even mention private accounts. And why should he? That's the same as privatization.

That seems pretty straightforward.

And, based on that, a TPM Reader wrote in thinking he'd found another member of our Conscience Caucus. I barely had the heart to tell him that Rep. Ferguson was trying to bamboozle him.

Republicans that are that down-the-line against privatization are pretty hard to come by. And a few lines down from that which I just quoted, we see that Rep. Ferguson notes the awards he won from the 60 Plus Assocation, to demonstrate his Social Security bona-fides.

Only problem is that 60 Plus is a pro-privatization astroturf group. Says who? Says they. On this February 15th, 2002 the group proudly noted that in 1995 they "became the first national senior citizens group to endorse publicly the privatization of Social Security ..."

There really seems to have been some terrible miscommunication here between Rep. Ferguson's office and 60 Plus, doesn't there? Sort of like the NRA awarding Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) their Gun Rights Man of the Year award.

Call me cynical. But I think Rep. Ferguson's trying to trick his constituents on Social Security, don't you?

Or how about Rep. Mark Kennedy (R) of Minnesota. He turns out to be a down-the-line anti-privatization man too. But the letter he's sending out to constituents contains some information that just may turn Washington on its ear.

"I applaud President Bush's courage in addressing the long-term status of Social Security," Kennedy writes in a constituent letter sent out yesterday. "Don't be misled: neither President Bush nor any Republican in Congress has a plan to privatize Social Security. I will oppose any plan that privatizes Social Security, cuts benefits, cuts survivors or disability benefits, or raises payroll taxes."

I sure am glad that Rep, Kennedy is taking such a strong line against misleading people. But who knew that President Bush has come out against privatization? And every Republican in Congress? Was this all just a big misunderstanding?

We're seeing example after example of this.

If this plan's so popular. Why do so many members of Congress want to trick their constituents into thinking they don't support it?

Late Update: Alas, more bad news for Rep. Ferguson. Here's his declaration of support for privatization on the Cato website from the year 2000. Here's an archived version in case the Cato gizmocrats rush to pull that one down.

Late Update: Say it ain't so! Here's Rep. Kennedy under the same 'privatization' banner from 2000.

Later than Late Update: My God, it gets worse. Sen. Dole says "no way am I for privatizing Social Security. I support the concept of allowing workers to contribute small portions of their own Social Security in the market because it would negate the need to nearly double payroll taxes on future workers to fund benefits ... This is not privatization – the government would always administer the program."