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Saving Social Security

Location: Washington, DC

SAVING SOCIAL SECURITY -- (House of Representatives - February 15, 2005)


Mr. WEINER. Mr. Speaker, I appreciate the opportunity to speak tonight. I consider myself an honorary member of the 30-something Group now that I have passed 40. I am here strictly as a visitor. But I was taken by some of the discussion that was going on here on the floor, and I want to make one philosophical point and one economic point to essentially affirm some of the things that the gentlemen were saying.

First of all, there is a great deal of discussion inherent in the President's debates that seeks to drive a wedge between two generations. The beauty of the Social Security program is it was a classic generational compact. One generation supports the other. And the President when he embarked on his campaign across the country kept saying, well, seniors, you do not need to worry about this. We are not touching your benefits. This is entirely about the next generations.

This is the first time in my memory, and we, the three of us, have not been around as long as some other Members of this august body, that you did not hear the President seeking to unify the country around an agenda. You heard him trying to divide the country to perpetuate an agenda, and I think that most Americans realize, whether they be younger or older, that at the end of the day the Social Security program has worked exactly as it was intended since the moment it was passed.

Sometimes you build up large surpluses and you spend them down as the next generation retires. Sometimes you have gifts, sometimes you have ebbs and flows, and there has been inherent in this debate a certain sense of it is about me now, rather than the idea that we are going to be there for the next generation the same way they were there for us.

If I could just make an economic point based on the charts that you have been showing, some people say and even some economists say, well, deficits really do not matter. There are a lot of people in this matter who are in the deficits-do-not-matter school. Well, that may have been true in the 1940s and 1950s and 1960s because, frankly, there was no place else on Earth for someone to invest their money except in U.S. dollars. If you ran up a big deficit, it did not matter. It is not going to stop someone from coming in here and saying, well, if you are the Chinese, as my colleague so aptly put, if we are the Saudis or Egyptians, if we want to put our money someplace safe, we have to buy Treasury bills and invest in the economy, we have no other choice. What choice do we have? There is no other economy in the world that can sustain it.

Well, for the first time the Euro has now become a reserve currency of the world that is competing with us. So what does this mean to the average New Yorker, the average person who lives in Ohio or Florida?

What it means is that we, the Federal Government, are going to have to compete with Europe in terms of who is going to have the higher interest rate. What does that mean? That means that not only are T-bills going to be higher, your interest rates on our credit cards is going to be higher. Your interest on your bank loans is going to be higher. Your interest rate on your mortgage is going to be higher. If you think this only matters to you, you are 30 years from retiring or getting a Social Security check today, you are completely wrong.

If we keep going on this path, what we are going to be doing is essentially competing with ourselves for interest, and it is going to wind up costing average Americans hundreds and hundred of dollars each month on their dollars. If we have one good thing going for us in the last couple of years, it is low interest rates. If it were not for low interest rates driving demand for homes and cars, this economy would be in a worse rut than it has been in the last several years, and we are putting that at risk, and that is why deficits matter.

Deficits matter for another reason. Those of us in this House, and I think the three of us are in this crowd, who are true conservatives when it comes to money, we look at the idea of being a conservative person is to say, look, I derive certain debts, I rack up certain debts, whether I borrow money or I spend freely, it is my obligation to be responsible for those things. Anyone who sits in this Chamber, who campaigns as a fiscal conservative, who supports the continuation of that chart that is to your right is simply not a conservative. You cannot legitimately make that claim.

I believe that in the years that you refer to when Tip O'Neill and Ronald Reagan got together and did things, frankly sometimes did a half-a-loaf thing that neither side was completely happy about, the one thing they did have was this intellectual consistency about saying if we are going to spend it, we are going to pay for it; if we are going to augment the Department of Defense, we are going to do the best we can to pay for it.

We even reached a moment in this House when our deficits were at the paltry amount of $250- or $260 billion, where we said we are going to pass laws to restrict ourselves. The Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act said you cannot spend a single dime unless you pay as you go. A lot of people said it was really bad because it hurt some programs more than others, but at least it was an acknowledgment in this House, an acknowledgment that the government has, at the end of the day, to be responsible for the deficit.

Today, the philosophy is entirely different. Today, it is not our problem, which brings us back to the original problem, that we have now started to say it is all about us, it is all about this moment in time, not thinking at all about the next generation, not thinking at all about the past generation. That is why deficits matter. That is why the President's plan matters to wherever you are on the demographic scale, this is an issue that matters to all Americans.

I want to thank the gentleman from Ohio (Mr. Ryan) because he has been out here many times talking about this. People have been sending e-mails and saying we get it. That is where fundamentally the President has to understand. This is not a matter of going out and doing a campaign swing like you mentioned. This is a matter that fundamentally people understand it is our obligation, both in the Social Security system and fundamentally to our children, that we do not continue exacerbating that problem.

Mr. MEEK of Florida. Mr. Speaker, if the gentleman has an issue of concern, I just want to say that it is important that the American people understand that Social Security is not a program for the poor. Social Security is a program for everyone in America. It does not matter if you started off with a small business, a hammer and two nails, and you became the largest business in your community. If you are paying in your contributions to Social Security, you are going to receive a benefit from it.

What is important is that people understand that this is not, and when we say Social Security program, I want to make sure people understand, this is for everyone. This is also dealing with survivors, and so many of them are helping themselves through the contribution of their parents, and many of them are no longer with us. So this is the only real legacy that they have, financial legacy, to be able to move on their aspirations.

One thing that I must say that we are saying on this side of the aisle, and I think the majority needs to take some responsibility for this, too, you mentioned how can you say you are conservative, meanwhile you are seeing a nose-dive there at 450 with a "t" trillion, to 425 trillion, I mean down, nose-dive. How in the world can you say that you are a conservative? Now when we look at it, we know that.

Our colleagues, some that put it on the line literally for us to go up to the 236, it was a price to pay.

Mr. RYAN of Ohio. Mr. Speaker, if the gentleman will yield, I am sorry to interrupt. I just want to make this point.
As we run these deficits, as the gentleman from New York just stated, it is not free. We are borrowing, money and we have got to pay interest on it. The interest payments and the money that we have got to pay on our debt becomes a greater portion of the budget that we have every year here, and that is less money that we have for Pell grants, that we have for investing in the health and education and general welfare of our society in order to lift more people up, to create taxpayers.

Mr. WEINER. Mr. Speaker, if the gentleman would yield, it is national defense and it is antiterrorism programs. It is all of the things that all of us fight tooth and nail for here every year.

I would argue that interest on the national debt that we are racking up every year is an expenditure that we get no value for. It is essentially foreign aid is what it really is because so much of these payments are going overseas because so much of our debt is held by overseas entities, but we do not get anything for that.

You cannot go back to your district and say now we have 20 percent of the budget is going to just make these payments.

Let us not forget something. The Social Security program is not supposed to be a profit retirement plan. The President is absolutely right. If we invested since 1935 every dollar in the stock market, we would have a lot more money in the trust fund for sure. The problem is the line would not go like this. It would go like this.

The program was intended to be fundamentally an antipoverty program, a safety net program. It is a program that is there for everyone, and also, the idea you are getting out a lot more than when you put in. The President says that it is a sign that the program is broken. No. That is the way it was created because we assume that from generation to generation, just as your generation did for us, we would be creating a stronger economy with more coming into the Social Security program.

He said there are so many fewer children supporting the parents. Yeah, but we are making a lot more. Thank goodness that economic growth continues growing which is even more preposterous, that when the budget actuaries concluded we are going to start going broke in the year 2042, they based it on a presumption that for the first time we are going to have a 20-year-period where we start going in the other direction. Some optimistic projection.

I keep hearing about the President being the ultimate optimist. Well, not if you believe the Social Security actuaries.
So the idea that somehow we get some value by doing this, I defy my colleagues on the other side of the aisle that if you want to pay for homeland security, which I do, if you want to pay for national defense, which I do, and if you want to pay for farm subsidies, as many of you do, we do not actually have farms in Brooklyn, but then you cannot do any of those things if you are paying that much in interest.


Mr. WEINER. Mr. Speaker, I tell my colleagues that the ultimate decider of this issue is not going to be the three of us. The ultimate decider will be the numbers of people sending e-mails to and who contact their elected officials who say, before you go anywhere on this, you should all understand there are some issues that still unify a country that is 50-50, and Social Security is one of them.

The endearing beauty of the Social Security system is that across demographic lines, across political lines in all parts of this country, just about every American has a story within their family about how the Social Security has worked for them. Now, some of our colleagues on the other side of the aisle are famous for standing up in March against something and then meekly, no pun intended, in June, voting for it. We saw that with the Medicaid bill.

But at the end of the day, if we get a sufficient number of calls or e-mails to, we are going to have the ability to say, you know what, this is pure politics now. And if we let that voice go out there that this is not going to be touched, we will eventually win enough of them. And we will do this the old-fashioned way.

There will be a core on the other side of the aisle that says we are unprepared. Now, admittedly, their ancestors in the Republican Party did not cast a single vote for this in 1935 either, so I am not so sure that they have the ownership that we do of it. And we are proud this is a Democratic legacy program, but it is also one that has helped millions and millions and millions of Republican families in suburban areas and rural areas and everywhere else.

So the die has not been cast. This is ultimately going to be up to the people of the United States of America. And they are going to see, just like they got sold a pig in a poke with the Medicare bill, we are not going to let that happen with this as well.

Mr. Speaker, I yield to the gentleman from Ohio.


Mr. WEINER. And let me just reiterate, Mr. Speaker, and perhaps I have a less cynical perspective than my colleague does.

I think something good is coming out of this in that our generation is remembering again that there was a time in this country, in the early to mid-1930s, where we had a poverty rate among seniors that was approaching 40 percent; that we had just come through the tremors of the Great Depression that had left, frankly, our economy in a shambles, and there were certain things we did that made fundamental sense that have endured throughout time.

People sometimes do not understand what the Social Security is and what it is supposed to be. But if we can start to animate a discussion in this country among people of all generations about why this is important and why we should not be so sanguine about the idea that we are paying for a lot of this by borrowing out of Social Security today. If the President was so concerned about how solid the Social Security would be, one thing he could do is stop borrowing from that trust fund today.

So I think, frankly, having this discussion is going to turn out to be very salutary if we prevail. If we do not prevail, and if the President is successful in pulling hundreds of millions of dollars out of the Social Security system, we are quite literally, our generation, will be the one to live to regret it first. Every other generation since the 1930s, our parents and grandparents, have benefited from this program, and we are the ones that will wind up having to fix it.

Mr. Speaker, so much of what we do around here, unfortunately, is going to be left to others; my colleague's young child is going to be left to clean up the mess being created by the 107th, 108th Congress; and it is very important that we keep doing this.

It is also important that people continue to send their e-mails to, because for every letter that we get, there is evidence that there are 100 or 200 that we are not actually receiving.

One final point on this: for those of a generation who are not yet ready to get Social Security, this is an economic issue for you today, but it is also an economic issue for you tomorrow. Just the same way you would be smart in investing in your 401(k), we should be smart about legislating.


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