'Social Security Saved!' (Speech by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University on Mar. 16, 1998)

The National Public Accountant, July 1998 | Go to article overview

'Social Security Saved!' (Speech by Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University on Mar. 16, 1998)


ADDRESS BY SENATOR DANIEL PATRICK MOYNIHAN

Institute of Politics: Spring Exercise on Social Security Reform John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University Cambridge, Massachusetts March 16, 1998

Let me begin with a proposition appropriate to our setting. Social Security in the United States is very much the work of academicians. It came about in an exceptional 14 months in the first Roosevelt administration, but economists had been planning it for a third of a century.

A second proposition: As with much social policy that originates with academic experts, the level of informed political support for Social Security within the electorate has always been low, and just now is getting lower.

This history goes back to the progressive era at the beginning of the century. It is to be associated, for example, with John R. Commons of the University of Wisconsin who helped found the American Association for Labor Legislation in 1906. The German government had created a workman's compensation system, a form of insurance against industrial injuries, and a sickness insurance program in 1884. In the academic manner, these ideas crossed the Atlantic and were particularly well received by the north European populace of Minnesota. Edwin E. Witte, the author of the Social Security Act of 1935, a student of Commons, was, for example, of Moravian stock.

In a fairly short order workman's compensation became near universal among the states, and the reformers now looked to universal health insurance, a logical follow-on. In a mode we have experienced in our time, this proved too much. Business grew nervous. The American Federation of Labor, led by Samuel Gompers "joined his fellow members in impassioned opposition."[1]

Labor leaders of Gompers' generation looked with suspicion on government-provided benefits. They wanted trade unions to do that. World War I and its aftermath pretty much ended the era. As Witte's biographer writes: "No great popular enthusiasm developed for health insurance, and in the troubled days immediately following World War I it went down to defeat amid contradictory cries of 'Made in Germany' and of 'Bolshevism.'"[2]

In the event, when the political system was ready it had to send for the academics. Roosevelt, pressed by Huey Long, the Townsend Plan, and the general distress of the Depression, needed a big bill. In June of 1934 he set up the Committee on Economic Security, headed by Frances Perkins, a knowledgeable reformer, albeit of the Gramercy Park variety. And also a woman with a magical ability to get strong men, from Tammany district leaders to Supreme Court Justices, to help her out because she was, well, so in need of help.

Madame Perkins brought Commons' student Witte from Wisconsin to staff her Committee on Economic Security, but it was left to her to figure out how to get a bill passed. She relates the sequence in The Roosevelt I Knew:

It is difficult now to understand fully the doubts and confusions in which we were planning this great new enterprise in 1934. The problems of constitutional law seemed almost insuperable. I drew courage from a bit of advice I got accidentally from Supreme Court Justice Stone. I had said to him, in the course of a social occasion a few months earlier, that I had great hope of developing a social insurance system for the country, but that I was deeply uncertain of the method since, as I said laughingly, "Your Court tells us what the Constitution permits." Stone had whispered, "The taxing power of the Federal Government, my dear; the taxing power is sufficient for everything you want and need."(3)

And so it came about that on August 14, 1935, when FDR signed the bill, standing at the President's right in the official photograph was Robert L. Doughton of North Carolina, Chairman of the Committee on Ways and Means.

I am not altogether comfortable with what I am about to say, but I will do so anyway in the hope that you will give the subject some thought.

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