Dana Milbank: Bush's Challenge and FDR's Were Far Different in Promoting Social Security Reform

Roundup: Media's Take

Dana Milbank, in the Washington Post (4-26-05):

... Roosevelt 's struggles in 1935 were in some ways similar to President Bush's attempt to steer a revised Social Security program through Congress in 2005 -- but their legislative styles are vastly different.

Like FDR's, Bush's party enjoys control of both chambers of Congress, though by smaller margins. Like FDR, Bush confronts a public that favors costlier alternatives to his plan. Like FDR, Bush is engaged in a major public relations effort to sell his plan. And, like Roosevelt, Bush faces a great challenge in unifying his own party in support of his proposal.

But Bush, trying to replace part of Social Security with individual accounts, is approaching the situation differently than Roosevelt did in 1935. Roosevelt presented Congress with a highly detailed proposal developed by a Cabinet-level committee, and it passed Congress relatively intact. Bush, by contrast, has left it to Congress to work out the details, providing it only with broad guidelines.

Also, FDR's proposal was a compromise that split the difference between a more radical plan favored by many in his own party and the business-generated opposition in the other party. Although many view Roosevelt's legislation as a triumph for the left, developing a vastly expanded concept of the federal government, it is fair to say that his plan prevented passage of a more radical scheme that had broad popular support. Bush, by contrast, has sided with those in his party who have proposed the most far-reaching changes to the program, pitting him against GOP moderates and virtually all Democrats.

Roosevelt sought to cool the passions in his own party, whereas Bush is trying to kindle passion in his party. "In 1934, Congress tilted decisively to the left [and] Roosevelt was more moderate than lots of people in Congress," historian Robert Dallek said. Bush, by contrast, "is more to the right" on Social Security than many of his GOP colleagues in the House.

Bush's challenge is to build public support for his private accounts. Roosevelt had the task of preventing a more radical Social Security plan from becoming law. Emerging from a depression in which unemployment hit 25 percent, 18 million sought public relief and 9 million remained jobless, the country was clamoring for retirement security. Populist Sen. Huey P. Long (D-La.) proposed a "Share Our Wealth" plan that would redistribute all private fortunes to Americans in need. Another populist, Francis Townsend, wanted to tax all business transactions to give $200 a month to elderly Americans if they agreed not to work.

Roosevelt, who ran on a "work and security" platform in 1932, wanted to avoid anything that looked like the handouts for those on the dole in Europe. That put him at odds with some of his own aides, such as Harry Hopkins, and liberal Democratic Senate leaders, such as Robert F. Wagner, who favored generous relief payments. Roosevelt, in the summer of 1934, formed a Committee on Economic Security to devise legislation for a self-sustaining, insurance-style program for the unemployed and the aged that would reduce the need for handouts.

"A program developed by a committee of the cabinet would be under his control," wrote Frances Perkins, who as labor secretary chaired the committee. "It would not be likely to get off into the kind of political discussion and publicity that might breed doubt and delay." Their instructions were to develop a largely self-financing program that would help the elderly, the unemployed, the disabled, and dependent mothers and children -- but avoid the extravagance of the Long and Townsend plans, which Roosevelt feared. "One hardly realizes nowadays how strong was the sentiment in favor of the Townsend plan," Perkins wrote in her 1946 memoir.

The administration worked for 18 months to build support for its approach. An ally, the Rockefeller Foundation, brought British experts to the United States to tour chambers of commerce, rotary clubs and church groups to soften objections from businesses and conservatives. The sales effort culminated in a large conference at Washington's Mayflower Hotel in November 1934.

Roosevelt used his pulpit to deflate the populist ideas and to lower expectations. "I don't know whether this is the time for any federal legislation on old-age security," he said in November 1934, even though the idea was on his list of "must" legislation. "Organizations promoting fantastic schemes have aroused hopes that cannot be fulfilled. Through their activities they have increased the difficulties of getting sound legislation, but I hope that in time we may be able to provide security for the aged." His Jan. 17, 1935, message to Congress unveiling his proposal warned against "attempting to apply it on too ambitious a scale."

Beneath his public ambivalence was a determination to get his Social Security bill through Congress in 1935, particularly because the 1934 midterm elections had given the Democrats lopsided majorities in Congress. FDR, worried about the 1936 election, told Perkins: "We have to have it. The Congress can't stand the pressure of the Townsend plan unless we have a real old-age insurance system, nor can I face the country." ...

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