Wrong Way Riegels became a football legend when Roy Riegels, captain of the California football team in the 1929 Rose Bowl picked up a fumble and rumbled the wrong way down the field. He was prevented from scoring a touchdown for the opposing team only when one of his own players tackled him.
Wrong Way Corrigan passed into legend in 1939 when Douglas Corrigan took off from Brooklyn, New York, on a fight back to California – and landed in Ireland.
Now we have the political equivalent: Wrong Way Steny Hoyer could become a political legend for going the wrong way on Social Security unless his own teammates tackle him.
Joining conservative hysteria about long-term deficits, Hoyer has decided that the way to solve the deficit problem is to focus on cutting entitlements. And the way to cut entitlements is to start with Social Security, cutting benefits for some, raising the retirement age again. And the way to get this done is to create a bipartisan commission, and fast track whatever it recommends through the Congress, trying to ramrod a vote with no amendments before the public gets wise to the deal.
This is the essence of wrong-way politics – wrong on problem, wrong on answer, wrong on politics. Wrong Way Steny is going in the wrong direction.
America doesn’t have an "entitlements" problem. It has a broken health care system problem. Fix the health care system and its soaring costs – as every other industrial country has managed to do – and you solve the problem of long term, rising structural deficits. Fail to fix the health care system and everything will go belly-up – families, businesses, state governments and the federal government.
Social Security which is in surplus and well funded through the middle of the century is neither the problem, nor the solution. Hoyer presumably has forgotten that the last Social Security Commission hiked the regressive payroll tax on businesses and workers to prepay retirement for the boomers. Social Security has been racking up surpluses ever since, held in federal bonds guaranteed by the full faith and credit of the United States.
True, Congress has squandered that surplus on wars abroad and feckless top end tax cuts even when the economy was growing. (Deficit spending when the economy is in a deep recession is both affordable and necessary). Once the economy begins to grow again, and Social Security starts cashing in its bonds, progressive tax reform – requiring the wealthy to repay the money that they got in tax breaks – makes a lot of sense. Cutting the benefits or hiking the retirement age on workers would be the ultimate betrayal – a shameless shell game.
And politically, this is truly wrong-headed. Americans have just lost an estimated $13 trillion in wealth, with most of the losses suffered by those 45 and older. Retirement security has been shattered. Half of all workers have no retirement plan at all at work. The remainder increasingly have 401Ks that just got hit with significant losses from already insufficient savings. Most counted on their homes to provide the chief source of their savings. No more. The one source of security is the floor provided by Social Security.
So Wrong Way Hoyer suggests let’s make Social Security insecure. With more and more Americans already deciding they will have to work longer to make ends meet, let’s take away their Social Security check for a couple more years.
Why fix on Social Security, when health care is the problem? Because fixing health care is even harder than betraying boomers on Social Security. The Congress has to face down the insurance companies and the drug industry, two of the most powerful lobbies in Washington.
But Speaker Pelosi better tackle Wrong Way Steny before he goes too far. Forget about the Washington Post with its editorial fixation on cutting Social Security.
Forget about the billion-dollar Peterson Institute with its misleading propaganda. Changing the deal on Social Security will face aroused opposition across the country. It can’t be done quietly, in the dead of night, in a quick fast-track vote.
And Democrats will pay a huge political cost – in trust already shaken by the Wall Street bailouts – among working people across the country.
Ante up hundreds of billions to bail out the very bankers whose recklessness and greed caused the Great Recession. And then take some of the money out of the hides of retired working people who have been its largest victims. Do that, and Wrong Way Steny will become an infamous legend in his own time.