Last week former Republican Senator Alan Simpson, who co-chairs the White House’s fiscal commission, drew a storm of criticism for comparing Social Security to a “cow with 310 million tits.” But Titgate isn’t really about language. It’s about both Simpson himself — who has long viewed Social Security as a bloated program for spoiled old people — and about the commission as a whole. Comprised of nine tax-averse Republicans and nine Democrats, many of whom have expressed support for Social Security changes in the past, the commission will almost certainly be biased toward benefit cuts, and away from raising taxes, when it presents its report on December 1. Below, the cast of characters who will be making the calls.
Bowles is Simpson’s Democratic counterpart. In the 1990s, he left Wall Street and corporate America to work in the Clinton administration, where in 1996, he was appointed Chief of Staff and led budget negotiations between the administration and the conservative Congress. In that role, he entertained and, by numerous accounts, nearly agreed to a Social Security compromise that would have invested money from the Social Security trust fund in the stock market. Bowles eventually left the White House, ran unsuccessfully for Senate in North Carolina, and recently retired as president of UNC.
The man who got progressive opposition to the fiscal commission rolling, Simpson will forevermore be known for comparing Social Security to a mutant bovine. Awkward as that was, though, it was just another piece of his decades-long career of calling for partial privatization of and benefit cuts to Social Security. Several progressive and labor groups, members of Congress and candidates have called for him to be fired from the commission.
THE PRESIDENT’S PICKS
Rivlin is an economist with a long history in government and a propensity to call herself a budget hawk. She was the first director of the Congressional Budget Office, served as President Clinton’s budget director, and later as a governor of the Fed. She has publicly argued that Social Security benefits should be cut and means tested.
Until very recently, Stern served as president of the Service Employees International Union. His appointment to the fiscal commission drew the ire of the business community, and initially heartened progressives. But he has argued, à la Bowles and others on the commission, that part of the Social Security trust fund be invested in the stock market. This idea is distinct from the much more controversial plan to let people divert their payroll taxes into private investment accounts, but it’s not without risk-averse critics.
Cote is a Republican and the CEO of defense contractor Honeywell. He helped sell the stimulus bill to the business community at the beginning of last year (perhaps explaining his appointment to the commission). But though his views on entitlements specifically aren’t known, he has, according to commission sources, advocated cutting service member benefits to avoid other defense budget cuts that would harm contractors…like Honeywell.
Fudge has spent most of her career as a business leader. She led a major division of Kraft Foods, and retired as the chairman and CEO of advertising giant Young & Rubicam in 2006. Fudge was born in Washington, DC, but has no professional experience in government. She was an Obama fundraiser and is a member of the board of the Council of Foreign Relations.
Ryan almost needs no introduction. The House Republicans’ top budget guy is one of its most outspoken advocates of fiscal austerity. He’s the author of legislation that would dramatically overhaul and shrink the country’s budget, largely by privatizing Social Security and turning Medicare into a voucher program.
Hensarling comes straight from the Ryan school of fiscal austerity. He’s even the second most senior Republican on the House Budget Committee, just behind Ryan. Hensarling is also a top conservative on the Hill, and led GOP efforts to oppose the bailouts during the financial crisis in 2008. As recently as February, Hensarling was publicly advocating partial privatization of and cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
Don’t expect Camp to advocate any real tax increases. You don’t become the top House Republican on the Ways and Means Committee (with jurisdiction over tax policy) by entertaining the idea that the government should collect more revenue. In the past, Camp advocated for President Bush’s Social Security privatization scheme, and claims on his website that he’s opposed to cutting benefits for “current retirees.”
After 17 years in the Senate, Gregg will retire later this year. Along the way, the New Hampshire Republican, and ranking member on the Budget Committee, has developed a reputation as a moderate. He briefly considered becoming President Obama’s Commerce Secretary. But he’s not that moderate. In 1998, he teamed up with conservative Democrat John Breaux to co-chair the National Commission on Retirement Policy. According to USA Today, their plan would have raised the retirement age to 70 by 2029, and included a Bush-like privatization component. Is that just a matter of fiscal austerity? No. Gregg wants to shrink the government by starving the beast. He recently argued that “[w]hen you’re spending money, you’re spending money that is — it’s not the same thing because it’s growing the government. So I tend to think that tax cuts should not have to be offset.”
The junior senator from Oklahoma is one of the most conservative men on Capitol Hill. He recently came out in support of extending the Bush tax cuts on the rich, which, short of other tax increases or drastic spending cuts, will ensure deficits just about as far as the eye can see. The Oklahoman offered a peek at Coburn’s philosophy in an April 25 article. “I’m not going to support a tax increase in any way until we’ve eliminated waste in the federal government, the vast majority (of waste),” Coburn said. “I don’t think we have to raise taxes. I think we need to dismantle large segments of the federal government and send them back to the states where they can be done more efficiently, without duplication, without waste.” On Social Security, he says all options should be on the table… except the ones that preserve benefits and the current structure of the system. “There are only three things you can do with Social Security,” Coburn said. “You can raise taxes on Social Security, you can allow option-out into private accounts or you can delay retirement age… I’m not for raising taxes on Social Security when you fix it other ways.” However, Coburn’s chief role on the commission is to achieve savings in the defense budget. He recently released a comprehensive plan to trim the fat at the Pentagon, but also recommended that “Congress should assess the long term affordability of DOD personnel pay and benefits, including for dependents, retirees, and survivors.”
Crapo is a member of both the Senate Budget and the Finance committees. In 2006, he teamed up with Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) — one of the most conservative members of the Senate — on legislation that would have “[p]rovided a voluntary option for younger Americans to obtain legally binding ownership of a portion of their benefits,” (also known as privatization) and “Made no changes to the benefits of those Americans born before January 1, 1950,” suggesting that those born after 1950 will likely see their benefits reduced relative to older Americans.
Spratt is the top budget guy in the House and a self-described budget hawk. Spratt epitomizes the “all options on the table” ethos of the fiscal commission, and has for a long time. He has in the past advocated for supplementing Social Security with a private savings plan and capping. He has opposed hard entitlement caps, though in the 1990s advocated a plan that would have forced Congress to vote on a Presidential entitlement plan if entitlement spending passed a certain threshold.
Becerra is the vice-chairman of the House Democratic conference. He serves on both the Budget and Ways and Means Committees, and is a liberal. He’s one of the few people on the commission without a history of at least entertaining changes to Social Security.
The Illinois Democrat has a close relationship with President Obama. But she’s the only member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus on the commission, and a foe to those who propose entitlement cuts. In the 111th Congress, she led the CPC’s health care task force, and in that role was one of the leaders for the unsuccessful fight for a public option. She continues to argue that so-called deficit hawks who favor major spending cuts could instead save billions of dollars by supporting a public health insurance option tied to Medicare reimbursement rates.
Conrad is one of the only people in Washington — let alone on the fiscal commission — whose rhetoric about the country’s looming fiscal crisis closely matches his voting record. He opposed the Bush tax cuts and the war in Iraq. During the fight over health care reform he was instrumental in ensuring that the legislation contain cost saving financing measures, though he largely opposed the public option. Recently, he has suggested a brief extension of the Bush tax cuts across the board, but argues that shortly after the economy recovers, the government will have to do a great deal to bring outlays and revenues into balance, including tax increases and spending cuts.
In 2001, Baucus voted for the first round of Bush tax cuts. He even stood behind the president at the signing ceremony. He was also instrumental in the creation of the Medicare prescription drug benefit — an unfunded entitlement. Now he’s chairman of the Finance Committee, but before the Democrats recaptured the Senate, he entertained the idea of negotiating with the Bush White House on Social Security cuts. It took Minority Leader Harry Reid’s intercession to put the kibosh on the whole scheme.
The Majority Whip is easily the most progressive senator on the fiscal commission, and one of its most progressive members overall. But he raised eyebrows in April when he admonished “bleeding heart liberals” to be open to the idea of scaling back entitlement programs in order to reduce future deficits. He’s not the man you’d expect to turn to Social Security as the first-best way to cut federal spending. But for the commission to agree on a program, 14 of 18 members must agree, and Durbin’s statement cast some doubt on whether he’d willingly be the fifth vote to stymie their recommendations strictly on progressive grounds.
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.