Tuesday, January 3, 2012
'We Have to Get It Started'
The passage of the Social Security Act in 1935 was proof of the adage that laws and sausages are best when you don’t think too much about what goes into them.
I was reminded of that recently while reading Jonathan Alter’s The Defining Moment. Most of the book focuses on the first hundred days of the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, but Alter devoted an afterword chapter to Social Security, which became law in 1935, the third year of FDR’s first term.
A number of things in the fight for Social Security call to mind the battle over President Obama’s health-care legislation. To start at the beginning, FDR decided early on to go with a more conservative proposal sponsored by two conservative Southern Democrats, rather than with a more liberal bill introduced by two New Dealers. This infuriated many of his liberal supporters, much as many on the left were incensed at Obama’s decision not to seek a single-payer universal plan.
(Actually, to start before the beginning, the American attempt to create a Social Security program was about half a century behind what the Europeans had already done, beginning with Germany in 1883. We got health care about the same amount of time behind most of Europe. Some things about the way our government operates don’t seem to change that much.)
Social Security, like national health care, was called socialism by its detractors, and both laws were passed during a time of economic distress, even in the knowledge that, in the short run, they might dampen the economy. As FDR was quoted as saying in Alter’s book, “We can’t help that. We have to get it started or it will never start.”
With both laws there was considerable time and cost needed to get them under way. Social Security was signed into law in August of 1935, and the first check didn’t go out until 1940. Getting 26 million Americans signed up for the system was a more massive bureaucratic effort than organizing the draft for World War I. The appropriation to implement it was filibustered by Senator Huey Long of Louisiana, but Roosevelt had a fallback plan. The National Recovery Act had been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court, but its federal employees were still on the budget, and were switched over to organizing the Social Security system.
Finally, both laws were passed only after numerous compromises that left nearly everyone unhappy about the outcome. Domestic and agricultural employees, mostly African-American, were originally exempted from Social Security to placate Southerners in Congress.
Even so, the bill narrowly got out of committee, and although the final vote was one-sidedly in favor, that occurred only after some tough fighting over details. As Alter put it, “Had the original Social Security been a touch more liberal, Republicans and conservative Democrats would have halted it. Were any more benefits withdrawn, New Deal liberals would have pulled the plug.”
Watered-down as it was, Roosevelt considered the law the “cornerstone” of his administration, and over the years it was improved and expanded. Any politician who tries to tamper with it today is in political peril.
The similarities between the battles over Social Security and health care don’t guarantee that the latter will turn out as well as the former, though I think it will if an activist Supreme Court doesn’t kill it at birth. What the fight over Social Security should remind us of is that laws are never perfect at first, painful compromises have to be made, and it’s more important to establish the general principle than it is to get every detail exactly right.