The power of the third rail has fizzled

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Column by Jim Flynn

Social Security is no longer the threatening third rail of American politics. Until the reforms of the Greenspan Commission in 1983, politicians did not dare fiddle with Social Security for fear of being electrocuted by voters at the next election.
Based on the Commission’s recommendations, Congress raised the retirement age and extended the solvency of Social Security for 75 years to 2058. Unfortunately they’ve been very short years. More reform is on the horizon, and Social Security has few champions.
In 2010, during a rare moment of harmony, Democrats and Republicans agreed to extend the politically popular payroll tax cuts put in place by generous George Bush, who financed two wars and wild Congressional spending with checks from China.
More recently, President Obama insisted on an extension of the extension. Some key Democrats balked at extending a reduction which is adding $89 billion to this year’s deficit. After lengthy dissension between and among Republicans and Democrats, the President was granted a vote-buying extension of the FICA tax holiday to the end of 2012, which occurs right after the November election.
What’s next? Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, a Democrat and one of the honorable members of Congress, was opposed to the tax holiday extension for the right reason. He said “Make no mistake; this is the beginning of the end of the sanctity of Social Security. The very real risk is that Social Security will become just another program to be paid for with deficit spending, and then in the future, perhaps raided to reduce the deficit.”
Republicans may not be known as Social Security cheerleaders, but they knew when the third rail needed repairs. It was President Reagan who appointed the Greenspan Social Security Reform Commission. Unfortunately the Commission’s reforms were seriously negated by the irresponsible spending of George Bush and his no-veto Congress.
As for Democrats, their lengthy reputation as supporters of Social Security is fading.
Mr. Obama and key members of his administration believe too much federal support goes to senior citizens, and too little to social programs they favor, such as Obamacare and food stamps.
Mr. Obama’s 2010 Commission on Fiscal Responsibility (debt and deficit), co-chaired by Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, included more than a few members who were in favor of privatizing Social Security. It was of no consequence, because the President ignored the Commission’s work and report.
It was also little noticed that during last year’s debt and deficit wrestling match between Congress and the White House, President Obama suggested a plan for major changes and spending reductions to Social Security and Medicare in exchange for new tax revenues. That a Democrat president would suggest such changes to congressional Democrats is a sign of things to come, as suggested by Senator Harkin.
Seniors and aging boomers would be well advised to take a cue from the Tea Party’s emphasis on Congress in the 2008 election.
It matters more who serves in the House and Senate than who may sit in the Oval Office for the next four years.

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