Democrats celebrate Social Security with an eye to elections

It was cake and benefits on Friday when Representative Joe Courtney celebrated the 75th birthday of Social Security at the Enfield Senior Center.

There was one large, vanilla cake for the twenty odd seniors and Courtney aides in attendance, and over $700 million in monthly benefits for the 611,276 social security recipients in Connecticut.

Signed into law on August 14th, 1935 by Franklin D. Roosevelt, Social Security is the largest, and many say most successful, federal program. Democrats hope to campaign on it this fall.

According to state AARP spokesperson Jennifer Millea, in Connecticut alone, the almost $9 billion a year in benefits keep 34% of Connecticut’s population over 65 out of poverty.

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U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney talks about Social Security to a group of Enfield seniors (Nicolas Kemper)

“Social Security is a lifesaver,” said State Sen. Edith Prague, D-Columbia. “It is absolutely the best thing that has happened to seniors.”

Courtney, who also planned to celebrate Social Security at a pancake breakfast in Lebanon Saturday, wasn’t the only Democrat observing the program’s anniversary. Reps. Rosa DeLauro, D-3rd District, and John Larson, D-1st District, also attended celebrations last week, and some 100 town hall meetings were scheduled across the country.

Democrats hope to turn Social Security into a campaign issue, and draw support from a large and dependable bloc of over-65 voters, by portraying Republicans as eager to tinker with the program.

A number of Democrat-friendly groups, including and several public employee unions, are part of a coalition behind the website The Democratic National Committee recently published a video of Chairman Tim Kaine and James Roosevelt, the grandson of Franklin Roosevelt that concludes, “Tell Republicans: Get Your Hands off Social Security.”

After Friday’s event, Courtney said Republican House Minority Leader John Boehner made the GOP vulnerable to attack in late June, when he suggested means testing and raising the Social Security retirement age to 70 as means of keeping the program solvent.

“I don’t think there’s anything contrived about this issue,” Courtney said.

Most of the Democratic attacks, however, focus on Republican proposals to privatize parts of Social Security. The Democratic Senate Campaign Committee has launched a website that highlights Republican candidates for Senate who have made comments advocating the privatization of the program.

But the privatization idea, which drew considerable GOP support when it was pushed by the Bush administration in 2005, has lost much of its allure since the stock market collapsed. Janet Peckinpaugh, Courtney’s Republican opponent in November, is not a supporter. She wrote in an e-mail that “Social Security should not be privatized. It is just too risky to gamble with our seniors’ retirement income.”

But she added that ensuring the solvency of the program “could mean some hard decisions must be made in the near future.”

Courtney said he did not see an urgent need for reform: “Yes it’s a challenge, but it should not result in a panic driven program.”

During his talk he emphasized that Social Security had never missed a check and been successfully amended to stay solvent thirty times. Indeed, Social Security ran deficits from 1975 to 1982 and was on schedule to go insolvent in 1984 before Congress passed a series of reforms in 1983 that put the program on firm fiscal grounds.

The same trick, however, might not work twice.

“If you wait, then you will need much more dramatic cuts and much higher tax increases,” said Josh Gordon, Policy Director for the Concord Coalition, a nonpartisan group focused on deficit reduction. He said retiring baby boomers will create stresses on the system larger than the ones lawmakers were faced with in 1983, leaving them with a much wider gap to fill.

He noted that President Obama in February convened a deficit commission that is widely expected to suggest reforms in Social Security–in December, after the election.

“Right now there isn’t the will to do anything. We’re hoping that political will can be found, and hopefully the commission will help,” said Gordon. “At some point we have to get serious about our long-term fiscal future, and the sooner we act the better.”