In a new twist on the Social Security debate, some House Republicans are pushing legislation that would issue a certificate to Social Security recipients falsely claiming to guarantee that their benefits cannot be cut. This legislation takes dissembling beyond what we have come to expect from politicians, making the federal government itself just another instrument for false rhetoric.
Two versions of the bill -- The Social Security Benefits Guarantee Act of 2001 and The Social Security Guarantee Act of 2001 -- are before the House, sponsored by Reps. James DeMint, R-S.D., and Walter Jones, R-N.C., respectively. Both propose the same thing: that senior citizens shall, as soon as they become eligible for Social Security, receive certificates from the secretary of the treasury guaranteeing that they will receive the Social Security benefits promised under the law and that those benefits will be indexed for inflation.
House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas, promised a vote on the DeMint bill in a recent memo to fellow Republicans. As reported by the Washington Times, the memo outlines the political reasoning behind this legislation. "[It is needed to] assure Social Security recipients," Armey writes, "that their retirement security will be protected by a Republican Congress -- while we begin making the case, forcefully and without fear or apology -- for wide-ranging reform of the system."
John Feehery, a spokesperson for House Speaker Dennis Hastert, backed this up, telling the Washington Post that "[s]eniors need to know that Republicans are going to fight to preserve Social Security, no matter what Democratic ads will say."
The clear purpose of this bill is to provide political cover for Republicans in the 2002 election cycle. "If you are attacked by your opponent who says you want to cut Social Security, all you have to do is hold up this bill and say you voted to guarantee that no one's benefits will be cut," a House Republican official told the Washington Times.
Regardless of political motivations, however, the fact is that the bill will not do what its sponsors claim. Jones, for instance, said in a statement that his bill creates a "property right" for Social Security recipients. A property right, however, is a claim on resources that can be enforced in court. But these certificates are as valuable as ... well, the paper they're printed on.
That's the conclusion of an analysis of the DeMint bill performed by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) for the House Ways and Means Committee's Subcommittee on Social Security. CRS points out that any future change in the law would supersede these supposed guarantees.
"While [the bill] appears to set forth an absolute 'guarantee' of a certain amount of Social Security benefits ... " CRS states, "a future Congress could change or repeal the underlying statutory guarantee. Thus, while an individual may have the right to enforce the provisions of [the bill], such a right would remain subject to future Congressional enactments which could amend or repeal such rights."
Translation: The only real promise that the federal government is making is that Social Security recipients will receive all of the benefits guaranteed under law -- unless the law changes. As CRS points out, "[a]s a general matter ... Congress is always free to amend or repeal prior legislation." In short, the certificate guarantees nothing.
It's unlikely that a Social Security "guarantee" will become law this year. In a letter to Hastert and Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., last week, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.C., and House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo., said that such a bill would only be considered in the Senate along with a full debate over President Bush's proposals to privatize Social Security, something many Republicans are loath to do. Furthermore, the Bush administration has indicated in numerous media reports that it does not support the proposal.
Regardless of whether a "guarantee" becomes law, though, these bills are worrisome. Politicians make promises with no guarantee beyond their word all the time, and so the Republicans' desire to assure Social Security recipients that they won't lose any benefits under a reform proposal is not unusual. What is unusual is that this time, the Republicans don't just want to make an unenforceable campaign promise, they want the federal government to make it for them.