Wisconsin and other populist states have a history of deciding spending issues by the way of referenda in which all citizens can vote. We decide school spending plans and overrides of spending limits by counting ballots. It seems at the heart of a democracy.
A recent CBS-New York Times poll showed that about two-thirds of those who identified themselves as Republicans thought Social Security and Medicare as we know it should be saved.
That seems a rebuff to the Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, which has voted to move toward the eventual privatization of Medicare, the health care program for the elderly.
Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Janesville, author of the idea, seems puzzled that the elderly aren’t enthusiastic about his GOP plan. The plan would continue the existing Medicare program only for those who now are at least 55 years of age.
“We took care of them,” Ryan said.
The 41-year-old congressman forgets that many of the “them” are a member of what Tom Brokaw has called “the Greatest Generation.” They and their parents knew the sacrifice of World War II and the Korean War. These folks were not schooled in the so-called dangers of high tax rates on the wealthy.
Or perhaps it is that many of the folks older than 55 have children and grandchildren. Perhaps they believe their offspring deserve Medicare as much as they do.
Social Security has bounced back into the political debate when Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the Republican front runner for president in 2012, has called Social Security “a Ponzi scheme.” That’s a reference to the 1920s con man who stole investors’ money.
Perry later toned down the criticism calling Social Security “a big lie.” He promised, if elected, he would “fix” the lie. Perry has not spelled out how he’d fix the “lie.”
The Associated Press reported some Republican leaders like the idea of then President George W. Bush to allow citizens to privately invest some of their Social Security money. A decade ago, a GOP-controlled Congress ignored the idea.
Republican criticism of Social Security isn’t new. In 1936, GOP radio ads warned everyone would end up with a government number. Republicans were correct. They also were correct when they said paychecks would be smaller if Social Security became law. They were wrong when they suggested everyone would be required to wear a dog tag around the neck.
Before Social Security passed, Republicans also warned children no longer would support their parents, workers would quit their jobs because of the money taken from the paychecks and Social Security would remove “the romance of life.”
Now the issue is what to do with Social Security. Scholars say key choices appear to be extending the tax to higher incomes (the top is $106,800) lowering benefits, and increasing the eligibility age.
The folks in Washington seem hopelessly deadlocked. Perhaps referenda in Wisconsin — state or local votes — could provide impetus to find a solution. A good time for such advisory votes would be next year’s presidential primary. At a minimum, candidates would have to discuss the questions.
Matt Pommer worked as reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.