Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

One of the lines you'll hear again and again from supporters of phasing out Social Security is, 'Well, what possible problem could you have with letting people decide what they do with their own money? You think they're not smart enough? They can't be trusted?'

People who make this argument seem to have forgotten that -- the efforts of some malefactors notwithstanding -- we live in a democracy. They are deciding and will be for most of the next two years.

I have little doubt that if the American people decide that they don't like the Social Security program and would like to replace it with a system of 401-k like private investment accounts, that they'll do it. Certainly, if that's their choice, they'll have the help of the president, all his big financial backers and the leadership of the majority party in both houses of Congress in putting their judgment into effect. So I somehow doubt the popular will would be thwarted in any way.

The truth is that it's the president, more than anyone else, who doesn't trust people to decide what to do with their own money and their own futures. If he did, he wouldn't be lying to them so much about Social Security. He'd be arguing for his phase-out plan on the merits.

George W. Bush, being more truthful than he probably intended. From the Post ...

"Many times, legislative bodies will not react unless the crisis is . . . upon them," Bush warned Congress at a news conference late December. "I believe that crisis is [upon them]."

Many times you cannot pull off a big con, saith the ancient proverb, unless you telleth a lot of lies to the folks you're trying to swindle.

In Sunday's Post Jonathan Weisman has a piece on whether or not there's a Social Security 'crisis'.

And look at the lead graf<$NoAd$> ...

In just 14 years, the nation's Social Security system is projected to reach a day of reckoning: Retiree benefits will exceed payroll tax receipts, and to pay its bills the system will have to begin redeeming billions of dollars in special Treasury bonds that have piled up in its trust fund. To redeem those bonds, which represent money taken in years when Social Security ran a surplus and used for other government operations, the federal government would likely have to cut other programs, raise taxes or borrow more money.

It's not like he's prejudging the question or anything, right?

A 'day of reckoning'?

Where to start? In addition to adopting rather dramatic language that reads like it comes right out of the privatization playbook, just what does 2018 represent?

The first thing worth noting is that there's nothing unexpected about this. Indeed, it is part of the plan under which Social Security's financing was restructured in the early 1980s. Payroll taxes were intentionally raised substantially over and above current needs so as to build a 'trust fund' that could be drawn down when the surge of baby-boomer retirements began early in the 21st century. In essence, babyboomers were asked to overpay into the system to create a reserve to cushion the stresses that would be created when their oversized generation retired.

Coming to that date isn't any more of a 'day of reckoning' than it is when you get out of college and have to start paying your loans back.

Indeed, it's less dramatic since the date represents a tipping point. It's not as though anything will happen dramatically in a fiscal sense at that one moment. The fiscal stresses created by the retirement of the baby-boom generation will build slowly over-time as the generational cohort moves through retirement.

Needless to say, none of this means that some funding tinkering won't be necessary in the system down the road. And Weisman's article covers many of the issues I've discussed further down into the piece. But in writing an article that poses the question of whether or not there's a 'crisis' it probably makes sense not to start with loaded terms and phrases that prejudge the question in the affirmative.

A Faction defection?

TPM reader RK notes <$NoAd$> this statement on Faction member Rep. Ron Kind's (D-Wisc) website.

The statement suggests two things -- first, that Kind's staff may have some problems with the 'cut and paste' function on their office computers; but, second, and more importantly, that he may be inclined to oppose President Bush's Social Security phase-out plan ...

The long term solvency of Social Security is a much-debated issue. The Social Security Board of Trustees estimates that if the program continues unchanged, the trust fund will be depleted by 2042. The past few years have seen numerous proposals for Social Security reform ranging from an increase in payroll taxes to overhaul and partial privatization of the system.

I regard the protection of Social Security as a top priority, and I am concerned about its long term solvency. The past few years have seen numerous proposals for Social Security and Medicare reform ranging from an increase in payroll taxes to overhaul and partial privatization of the system. I do not believe that a radical overhaul of the Social Security system is the way to ensure payments for current and future retirees.

The national debt is now $7.1 trillion. Paying down the national debt would help up shore up Social Security and assure that it will last for future generations.

Certainly not as specific as one might like. But definitely a step in the right direction. And quite a bit more that Rep. Moran is willing to do.

A number of readers, particularly current and former Hill staffers, have written in to say that we're reading too much into Rep. Jim Moran's constituent letter professing an open mind about President Bush's Social Security phase-out plan.

As a general matter of congressional office practice, I think this is right. A good staffer never wants to lock his or her boss into a position in response to a constituent letter, absent some pressing reason to do so.

But abolishing Social Security isn't just any issue. For Democrats, it's an issue of fundamental importance and core values. And it promises to be the legislative issue of the next congress.

With that in mind, I think it's well for constituents to insist on a clear and unambiguous statement of where their representatives stand on this issue -- not the standard 'glad to hear your views; it's an important issue; we'll see what happens.'

Since the last time we ran down the list of the Fainthearted Faction, <$NoAd$> there have been a few changes. Rep. Harold Ford, formerly the Dean of the Faction, has lost his leadership post because of his statement opposing the Bush and Cato plans for phasing out Social Security. And now Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia is making a play for the leadership.

Furthermore, out of the blue, Gov. Ed Rendell has joined the Faction under the bylaws allowing 'Associate Member' status for active politicians not currently serving in Congress. And finally Rep. Ike Skelton confirmed his status in the Faction by expressing what the AP has called "wariness rather than outright opposition" to the Bush plan to phase out Social Security.

So, without further ado, here's the current membership list of the Fainthearted Faction according to the latest tabulations of the TPM research and analysis department ...

Fainthearted Faction

Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark)
Rep. Allen Boyd (D-FL) (L&P!)
Rep. Robert "Bud" Cramer (D-AL)
Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn) (*)
Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wisc)
Rep. James Moran (D-VA) (*)
Sen. Ben Nelson (D-NB)
Rep. Collin Peterson (D-MN)
Rep. Ike Skelton (D-MO) (*)
Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA)
Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn)
Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss)

Associate Members

Gov. Ed Rendell (D-PA) (*)

[ed. note: "L&P!" denotes members who are 'Loud and Proud' and now actively supporting the Bush Social Security phase-out plan. Asterisks by the name of members link to recent events which have led to their promotion, demotion or other status updates within the Faction.]

As you know, we're always looking for more information on the Fainthearted Faction. So if you know of a Democrat who belongs on the list, please let us know. We're also eager to find out more about possible primary challengers to Faction members.

Back in the late 1990s, Democratic policy types gave a lot of thought to various 'asset-building' policy initiatives -- the idea being to encourage and even supplement investment and asset-building across a broad spectrum of the population, particularly among middle and lower income Americans who have been limited in their opportunities to do so, both by a simple lack of money and because many of the tax deferred investment options which have been created in recent decades aren't that accesssible to them.

As the Social Security debate heated up, a number of those policy types started wedding the two ideas together -- a particularly influential one was President Clinton who announced such a plan during his second term. Whereas Republicans wanted to phase out Social Security and replace it with private investment accounts, Democrats wanted to preserve Social Security and supplement it with investment accounts, often with the idea of setting up every child at birth with an account and a small contibution to start them on their way to building their own savings either for college, a first home, a business or even for retirement. Some suggested doing it at birth; others thought to have it kick after each child finishes high school, thus adding an incentive to finishing a basic education.

If you look on his website, Rep. Harold Ford has one of these plans that he's clearly very interested in. He calls it the Aspire Act and you can see the details on it here on his site.

He and Rep. Patrick Kennedy are cosponsoring the bill with Reps. Petri and English in the House and Sens. Santorum and Corzine (another odd couple) have introduced similar legislation in the Senate.

I mention all this because if folks like Rep. Ford want to get people investing and building assets from early in life, they don't have to abolish Social Security to do it. Plans like this are right there on the shelf to get behind. And Ford's isn't even on the shelf. He's already working on it.

And after all why would any Democrat ever give a dime or lift a finger for any pol who voted to phase out Social Security?

As we've noted now several times, actual membership in the Fainthearted Faction requires that you be a sitting member of the House or Senate. But charter membership is available to all active political figures.

Like the Governor of Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell for instance.

Gov. Rendell went on Hardball on the 29th, when Andrea Mitchell was subbing for Chris Matthews. And when she asked him about Social Security and his advice to President Bush, here's what he said ...

If you`re looking at Social Security, there, there's got to be room to compromise. The work that Senator Breaux did and Senator Kerrey did with some of the moderate Republicans really is a road map for us to solve Social Security. And maybe we do what the president wants to do, private savings accounts as a pilot program and see where it goes, something that is more fundable and doesn't run up the national debt.

In the words of the great Rodney King: <$Ad$>"Can't we all just get along?"


And people wonder why Dems are always getting rolled?

Senators Breaux and Kerrey, of course, were both supporters of a private-accounts-based Social Security phase-out and Gov. Rendell thinks their work is a good "road map"? No wonder he's so happy to sign on with the Bush plan.

And a pilot program of private accounts?

That's great. A short-term trial of long-term investing. That's got to be up there with prim-and-proper orgasms and nouvelle cuisine burritos as ideas that just blow the lid off the ridiculometer.

Why is the Governor of Pennsylvania in the Fainthearted Faction? As far as I know, President Bush doesn't even have a brother in the state who could run against him.

That's the thing with the Fainthearted Faction: if it's not one thing it's another. One minute they're finding ways to cozy up to President Bush to abolish Social Security and the next they're in another of their incessant leadership battles over who's going to be the chief of their motley crew.

So, for instance, we noted that yesterday the Dean of the Faction, Rep. Harold Ford, Jr. of Tennessee, had issued a statement stating clearly that he will not "support changing the Social Security system as has been proposed by President Bush, nor do I support Social Security proposals advanced by the CATO Institute ... [because] "both of these proposals have the potential to harm current beneficiaries by paying for the transition costs by issuing debt."

Now, let's be clear what Rep. Ford did and didn't say. He says he won't support the president's plan or the Cato plan because they want to fund the transition costs with a couple trillion dollars of new borrowing. But he's also quite careful to say that, in principle, he does still believe in a private accounts-based (partial) phase-out of Social Security. He just doesn't see any way to pay for it.

Given the current fiscal shape of the country that pretty much has to mean Ford's out of the Social Security phase-out business, at least for the foreseeable future, since where else are those trillions of dollars going to come from if not more good-old-fashioned Bush borrowing?

But one can at least imagine that Ford might sign on to Sen. Graham's plan, which envisions funding the transition costs of the phase-out by removing the 'cap' on payroll taxes for upper income earners and cracking down on corporate welfare.

So that's a definite possibility to consider. But at the end of the day, the Fainthearted Faction is about getting all wobbly in the knees when President Bush comes calling with all his Social Security abolition love talk. And even if Ford's statement doesn't quite get him out of the Faction, it's certainly a challenge to his leadership of the group.

And wouldn't you know it, just when Ford starts letting his guard down, here comes Rep. Jim Moran of Virginia to make his challenge. Just as Rep. Ford was issuing his statement against the Bush phase-out plan, one TPM reader-constituent was getting a letter in the mail from Rep. Moran.

Now, you probably know Jim Moran is in Faction because of his vote against the Filner amendment back in 2001. Aside from that, though, he's been a pretty low-profile member of the group.

But this TPM reader-constituent sent a note to Rep. Moran asking him whether he planned to support President Bush's phase-out plan given that he was a member of the Fainthearted Faction. The reader made it pretty clear that Moran would lose his support and even gain a new opponent if he did. But in the letter he sent in reply, Rep. Moran makes quite clear that the Social Security phase-out option is very much on the table for him. You can read the text of the letter for yourself, with its various paeans to the importance of Social Security and Medicare and how we have to save them.

But the closest he ever comes to any specifics about where he comes down on a private-accounts-based phase-out is when he says: "As Congress considers legislation that would affect the privatization, solvency, and benefits of these two crucial programs [Medicare and Social Security], I will certainly keep your thoughtful concerns in mind."

If that's not a bid for the leadership of the Faction, I don't know what is.

Now, here's what strikes me as particularly noteworthy about Moran's bid to displace Ford. Just this last cycle Moran faced a very serious challenger in the Democratic primary -- opposition that stemmed from various points of unpleasantness that cropped up over recent years.

He ended up winning the primary and then coasting to victory in his Democratic district. But when he was in that primary battle he banked a lot on the backing of Gov. Howard Dean (who Moran had endorsed at the height of the Dean surge) as well as his early opposition to the Iraq war.

It is often pointed out -- and rightly so -- that support for Gov. Dean in the Democratic primaries was not as clearly ideologically left as it was often portrayed in the media. (Dean, after all, was pretty much a centrist as governor of Vermont.) But his support was activist and oppositional. And in playing up both his support from Dean and his early opposition to the war, Moran was appealing to Democrats who are fed up with what many of them perceive as Democratic accomodationism in Washington.

So now we find out that after all that Moran is -- if I'm reading his constituent letter right -- one of very few Democrats in Congress who's not prepared to oppose the president's Social Security phase-out plan.

A leadership shake-up in the Fainthearted Faction? Possibly so. We'll bring you the latest as soon we know more.