This editorial will appear in Sunday’s print edition.
Breaking ranks is hard to do.
AARP was in soft-pedal mode late last week, trying to downplay a Wall Street Journal story that bared the powerful seniors lobby’s change of heart on Social Security reform.
The story, quoting the association’s longtime policy chief who has been in the thick of Social Security debates for three decades, reported that AARP was dropping its longstanding opposition to cutting retirement benefits.
The shift reportedly was a recognition of political realities as much as fiscal ones: “The ship was sailing. I wanted to be at the wheel when that happens,” the policy chief, John Rother, told the newspaper.
On Friday, as the howls of protest mounted, AARP executives went on the defensive. CEO Barry Rand issued a statement calling the story “misleading” and claiming “AARP has not changed its position on Social Security.”
His statement did not deny that the group was open to benefit cuts. In fact, his own legislative policy director told Fox News that Social Security needs a “package of revenue and benefit adjustments … to make it solvent.”
However AARP chooses to spin it, the association’s break with previous positions is readily apparent to others.
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, who is advancing a proposal to reform Social Security, said AARP has marked a “huge shift in the debate on the solvency of Social Security.”
Third Way, a moderate Democratic group in Washington, deemed the news “a watershed moment.” And former Sen. Alan Simpson, co-chairman of a White House commission on the deficit, likened AARP’s willingness to talk about possible reforms tantamount to “the Arctic icecap cracking.”
The truth is that AARP – and the millions it spends on lobbyists every year – has been a major obstacle to a serious debate about how to address Social Security’s long-term solvency. If the seniors association is indeed relenting, politicians are likely to feel less queasy about tackling the problem head-on.
And it is a problem. The Social Security trust fund will be gone by 2036, at which point payroll tax collections will fall far short of what’s needed to support the system. Seniors would face a 23 percent reduction in their benefits.
Small changes now could delay that reckoning for decades, but many lawmakers struggle to summon the political will to risk their own necks for future Social Security recipients.
AARP’s apparent defection from the opposition creates an opening for Congress to forge a compromise to put the system on a more sustainable path – for the good of everyone who receives or ever hopes to receive a Social Security check.