Republicans have signaled they want to force a fight over Social Security in the coming Congress and, almost immediately, Democrats have pulled out their big gun in the public debate over the program: privatization.
The House passed a rule earlier this month that blocked a transfer of tax revenues from the retirement to disability funds, the latter of which will start being unable to pay full benefits to its 11 million beneficiaries in late 2016. They were clear that they wanted to force a debate, with conservative wonks hoping they would use it to change Social Security as a whole, as Democrats have also warned they might.
So Democrats almost immediately started to use the ‘P’ word, which is a powerful political tool. President George W. Bush’s 2005 plan to privatize Social Security turned into a political disaster after Democrats eventually coalesced around a clear, direct anti-privatization message, and the specter of privatization maintains rhetorical potency.
“Reallocation has never been controversial, but detractors working to privatize Social Security will do anything to manufacture a crisis out of a routine administrative function,” Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, said the day that the House rule passed.
Other leading congressional Democrats have since followed Brown’s lead.
Rep. Sandy Levin (D-MI), ranking member on the House Ways and Means Committee, told The Hill this week that he believed the House rule was intended as a step toward another privatization push.
“That rule should not be used as a rule to essentially try to privatize Social Security,” he said. “I think that’s the basic purpose of that rule.”
Rep. Rick Nolan (D-MN) took to the pages of the Aitkin Age, an alternative weekly newspaper in his district, to warn that privatization was the ultimate goal of Republicans.
“What’s the real reason for this sudden change? Well, the Majority makes no secret of its agenda to privatize Social Security, turning a big chunk of future funds over to Wall Street investors,” he wrote. “Calling the integrity of Social Security into question by inventing a crisis for the disability fund could advance that agenda.”
Those dire predictions were echoed by progressive grassroots groups.
“The GOP can only achieve its elusive dream of gutting and privatizing Social Security by first creating an imaginary crisis. Don’t fall for it,” wrote Mike Ervin, a member of the disability rights group ADAP, in a widely circulated op-ed.
Republicans have tried to counter the privatization alarm bells being rung by Democrats. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a close ally for Speaker John Boehner, told The Hill that that wasn’t the purpose of the rule. An aide to Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY), who co-sponsored the rule, told TPM that they were focused solely on the disability program “for now.”
But Democrats concerned about the prospect of broader GOP attacks on Social Security had to look no further than new House Budget Chair Tom Price (R-GA), who hinted earlier this month that individual accounts, otherwise known as privatization, should be on the table when Social Security reform is discussed.