TBT: Social Security Reform

Posted by Blake Wright on July 17, 2014 at 3:01 PM


By Alyssa Berg

The old adage goes that history will repeat itself if we fail to learn from our mistakes or, in the case of Social Security reform in America, our triumphs. With the Social Security trust fund headed for exhaustion by the year 2033, the future seems grim for the next generation of Millennials beginning to enter the workforce. However, a look back to the last Social Security crisis under President Reagan in 1983 brings to light one key tested solution: bipartisanship.

Throughout his political career, President Reagan had voiced unwavering opposition to Social Security, branding it a socialist scheme that forced citizens into a program with no opportunity to opt out. During his 1976 candidacy, he advocated for significant reductions to the program that would allow individuals to save for retirement without the interference or assistance of a government program. Finally, as President in the early 1980s, Reagan was forced to put his ideas about the program to the test as the Social Security system threatened to collapse and leave millions of retirees without a safety net.

Together, Reagan and his Health and Human Services staff proposed reduced Social Security benefits to retirees who had left their careers before the age of 65. In Congress, however, this proposal sparked passionate opposition and derision from actors on both sides of the aisle. Bipartisan majorities in both chambers voted against the President’s proposition, making it clear that any reform would have to be the product of deliberate bipartisan cooperation. With this in mind, Reagan and Democratic House Majority Leader Tip O’Neill created a bipartisan commission whose sole objective was to propose solutions for improving the long-term solvency of the Social Security system and to ensure its continued existence for generations to come.

In 1983, the results of the commission’s research were presented, and Senators Bob Dole and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (a Republican and a Democrat, respectively) led the effort to transform the group’s recommendations into viable legislation that could pass both chambers and the desk of the President. Both men were highly respected leaders within their parties and in the eyes of the President, and each was very much aware of the “third rail” nature of Social Security on the national political stage; a topic so charged with ideological discord and a reputation of conflict that it was likely to ignite ferocious partisanship from all corners of the political field.

But Dole and Moynihan set an example of cooperation and demanded the same from their colleagues. Moynihan implored his fellow lawmakers to put aside their differences and instead index the quality of their debate to the gravity of its outcome for future generations of Americans. “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts,” he cautioned.

The tone of cooperation set by the commission and exemplified by Dole and Moynihan permeated Congress’ deliberation, and ultimately their decision. Both chambers passed reforms to the program with bipartisan majorities, and with the stroke of the President’s pen, the legislation went into effect, pulling Social Security back from the edge of collapse.

Today, however, Social Security sits once again at this tipping point, and Congress’s recent reputation for partisanship seems less-than-likely to yield the kind of cross-party cooperation seen during the Reagan era. But bipartisanship shouldn’t just be something we extol in retrospect; it doesn’t have to be just a “throwback.” Yesterday’s leaders demonstrated the problem-solving power of bipartisanship, and that’s an example on which we can and should continue to build as we address Social Security solvency today.

Photos courtesy of the Bipartisan Policy Center