Is there a new, bipartisan consensus forming on Capitol Hill about whether (and how) to scale back Social Security benefits? A surprising number of signs point to “yes” — and that has many progressives looking ahead a few months to what they believe could become a serious fight.
Several of the most powerful members of the House — Republicans and Democrats — have recently voiced real support for the idea of raising the retirement age for people middle-aged and younger as part of a larger plan to reduce long-term deficits, inching closer to what not too long ago was the third rail of American politics.
The strongest backer of this plan is House Minority Leader John Boehner, who recently told a Pennsylvania newspaper, “I think raising the retirement age going out 20 years so you’re not affecting anyone close to retirement, and eventually getting the retirement age to 70 is a step that needs to be taken.”
There’s no big surprise there. The Republican minority in the House doesn’t have a lot of power, but if Boehner had his druthers, he might well take things quite a bit further. He’s the one, after all, who won’t take Social Security privatization off the table if Republicans retake the House.
It’s the Democrats who have progressives feeling queasy.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer explicitly put the idea on the table as well in a speech last month. “We should consider a higher retirement age or one pegged to lifespan,” Hoyer said.
He echoed House Majority Whip James Clyburn, who put it this way: “With minor changes to the program such as raising the salary cap and raising the retirement age by one month every year, the program could become solvent for the next 75 years.” One month a year may not sound like much, but if you’re 30 years away from retirement, that adds up to almost three years.
In the House, though, Nancy Pelosi is the linchpin, and she’s not nearly as enthusiastic as her colleagues. But, notwithstanding the enthusiasm gap, she also left the possibility of raising the retirement age on the table. When asked about it by TPMDC at her press conference last week, she criticized the plan, but mainly to say she disagrees with putting Social Security on the chopping block ahead of other measures. “Why they would start talking about a place that could be harmful to our seniors — 70 is a relative age,” Pelosi said. “Around here, there’s not a lot of outdoor work or heavy lifting. But for some people it is, and 70 means something different to them. So in any event let’s talk about growth, lets talk about how we can reduce spending, lets put everything, those initiatives: promoting growth, tightening the belt, looking at entitlements. But let’s not start on the backs of our seniors.”
There’s one catch, though. Last week, Democrats included a rider to the supplemental war spending bill that will likely force the House to vote on a forthcoming fiscal reform plan, if the Senate passes it first. That package is being put together by President Obama’s deficit and debt commission, and will be ready to go after the midterms. Pelosi had already pledged to give the package a vote, so perhaps nothing has really changed. But in a way, she also tied her own hands: if the Senate passes a broad tax-and-entitlement reform package at the end of this Congress and her own caucus is willing, she’ll be hard-pressed to stop the Social Security reforms she thinks should come last.
Of course, that puts the onus on the Senate, which can’t pass much of anything these days, especially if it includes tax hikes — and any serious effort to pull the country back from the brink of fiscal crisis will have to include some of those. But if there’s a fluke, or an unexpected decision on the part of 60 senators to hold hands and jump together, it could happen swiftly, with very little notice.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at email@example.com.