Bashing Reagan on Social Security: Don’t Go There

by Bruce Webb

News that the Republicans are pushing two bills that would establish a ‘Bi-Partisan Commission’ to ‘reform’ Social Security and Medicare are stirring up a debate which mostly had run cold. And one myth is bubbling back to the surface, the one that claims that Reagan simply used the Greenspan Commission to generate “huge surpluses” for Social Security to fund tax cuts for the wealthy. Never happened. There were no huge Social Security surpluses under either Reagan or Bush I, instead the 1983 reform set in place a mechanism that would slowly rebuild the Trust Funds back to their mandated level. And it worked, in 1993 Clinton entered office with Social Security sitting with a Trust Fund ratio of just over 100 meaning that it met the Trustees’ test for actuarial balance. But the overall outlook for Social Security actually deteriorated from 1993 to 1996 and the large surpluses that started in 1997 and accelerated through 2004 were neither planned for or anticipated by the 1981-83 Commission. They happened and on paper largely pre-funded Boomer retirement but this was not the product of any pre-existing plan. Inspect the numbers for yourselves.
This myth is particularly dangerous because it plays into the movement conservative message that you can NEVER trust big government, maybe ESPECIALLY when it is in Republican hands. Every second spent bashing Reagan or Bush II over Social Security is a second devoted to selling the message that ‘Big Government is the Problem’. Yes for those of us who are accused of being infected with BDS or delight in mocking St. Ronnie all of this is good fun. But it is unproductive good fun if your intent is to keep Social Security out of the hands of the vultures. Reagan in 1981 and Bush in 2001 and 2005 DID try to kill Social Security. They failed, every penny is STILL exactly where it is supposed to be. Insisting that they some how succeeded in raiding the pantry just plays into opposition hands. Knock it off. If that is you want that retirement check.