The Social Security Showdown From A Congressional Veteran's Perspective
In the coming months, one of the most indispensible resources to understand the looming Social Security battle is Mark Schmitt's blog. Schmitt, who worked for Senator Bill Bradley throughout the 1990s, has been through the legislative wars (particularly the legendary Clinton Administration budget/health care grudge match in 1993), and is familiar with the behind-the-scenes maneuvering. Anyway, Schmitt has two recent posts that are of interest. First, he rebuts the notion that Bush will ram through his Social Security phase-out using the budget reconciliation process, which requires only a majority vote:
Here, though, is the summary of the Byrd Rule from the Congressional Research Service:
The Byrd rule defines matter to be extraneous in six cases: (1) if it does not produce a change in outlays or revenues; (2) if it produces an outlay increase or revenue decrease when the instructed committee is not in compliance with its instructions; (3) if it is outside the jurisdiction of the committee that submitted the title or provision for inclusion in the reconciliation measure; (4) if it produces a change in outlays or revenues which is merely incidental to the non-budgetary components of the provision; (5) if it would increase the deficit for a fiscal year beyond those covered by the reconciliation measure; and (6) if it recommends changes in Social Security. (Italics added.)
You would have to fire a lot of parliamentarians before you found one who could rule with a straight face that Social Security reform could be done within budget reconciliation without violating the Byrd Rule, under both conditions 5 and 6. Without Democrats, there is no Social Security reform.
Even more illuminating is Schmitt's most recent post, in which he notes that Bush is essentially hanging Congressional Republicans out to dry now that he no longer has to worry about reelection:
But the reason he will ultimately fail, in a very big way, is that he himself didn't put himself on the line. Sure, he's talking about it now, he'll hold town meetings, he'll get the corporate backers of this scheme, plus the taxpayers, to fund some sort of campaign.
But when it counted, when his own political career was on the line, where was he? Nowhere. Yes, he mumbled something about private accounts occasionally in the campaign. But hardly anyone who voted for Bush thought that diverting two-thirds of the payroll tax into private accounts and paying for the transition costs with either crippling debt or reductions in future benefits was what they were voting for.
To see what I mean, imagine if Bush could call up the wavering Republicans today and say, "Look, dude, I went into your district. I campaigned for you. I told them that this was exactly what we were going to do with Social Security if they elected us. And they voted for us anyway." That would be a powerful political message. Those members would say, "Yes Mr. President," and go out there and put their necks on the line. But he can't make that call because he didn't take those risks. You might say he was AWOL.
Although Schmitt takes President Clinton to task for similarly failing to stick his neck out for House Democrats, Clinton at least had the cojones to propose an ambitious health care plan in the first year of his first term, with his reelection (indeed, his entire presidency) still ahead of him. Therefore, it's a sign of Bush's characteristic political and moral cowardice that he purposely obfuscated his desire to phase out Social Security until he no longer had to worry about his political future, and is now shifting the political risk of his plan onto Congressional Republicans (not that I have a problem with this, mind you). AWOL indeed.