Lies in the E-mail, Part 2
April 14, 2004
By Brooks Jackson
Since my first article on lying e-mails, I've gotten dozens of inquiries about a snarky little message blaming Democrats alone for all sorts of bad changes to Social Security. I'm calling it "Lying E-mail #2" because it is so full of laughably inaccurate claims.
Who Taxed Benefits?
The most glaring falsehood in this one is a claim that it was "the Democratic party" that "put a tax on Social Security."
Here's a link to a picture of that tax being signed into law. The year was 1983, and the president who signed it was Ronald Reagan.
Note Republican Sens. Bob Dole and Howard Baker -- both of whom had a hand in passing the law through the Republican -controlled Senate -- are looking on approvingly, along with a number of Democrats.
The tax, in fact, was part of a bipartisan measure to address Social Security's shaky finances. And it was recommended by a bipartisan commission headed by another Republican -- Alan Greenspan -- who had been appointed by Reagan. You can read about the Greenspan Commission (and see a picture of a much younger Greenspan) here, at a site the Social Security Administration maintains to document the history of the program. There is a full history of how benefits came to be taxed here .
And by the way, the tax only applied to a relatively small percentage of retirees -- those whose income totaled over $32,000 for a married couple. And the tax fell on only 50 percent of their Social Security benefits.
Who Gave SSI To Immigrants?
The next biggest whopper in this e-mail is a claim that it was "the Democratic party" that "decided to give money to immigrants" through the SSI program, "although they never paid a dime into it."
Actually it was Republican President Richard Nixon who both proposed and signed the legislation creating SSI -- the Supplemental Security Income program. When he signed it on Oct. 30, 1972, Nixon called it "landmark legislation." It was also bipartisan, approved by a Congress that was controlled by Democrats at the time.
Under Nixon's SSI law, immigrants were eligible for benefits from the start, as were all citizens, provided they were blind, disabled or elderly and destitute.
SSI is a federal welfare program funded out of general tax revenues, and is separate from the Social Security old-age pensions and disability insurance programs funded out of dedicated payroll taxes. While Social Security benefits are paid to those who have paid payroll taxes for a certain minimum period of time, SSI benefits were available to all -- citizens and resident aliens alike -- regardless of whether they had "paid a dime into it" or not.
The Social Security Administration published a history to mark the 20th anniversary of the SSI program, which you can read here.
It's true that Republicans did try to cut off SSI benefits for immigrants in 1996, but they quickly eased their stance amid a public outcry. The 1996 welfare-reform law cut off benefits for most immigrants. (Democratic President Bill Clinton protested, but signed the law anyway.) An outcry arose when the Social Security Administration notified more than 660,000 aged, blind and disabled immigrants that their benefits would be cut off at the end of 1997 and newspapers carried reports of some who had committed suicide after being notified. Congress then restored benefits to those immigrants who were getting them before the welfare-reform law was signed. The measure that permanently restored benefits to pre-1996 immigrants (Public Law 105-306) passed the Republican House by voice vote and the Republican Senate by unanimous consent.
Tough restrictions remain for newer immigrants, which you can read here. But you can credit a Republican president for creating SSI and a Republican Congress for giving SSI benefits back to hundreds of thousands of aged, blind and disabled immigrants.
Who Spent Trust Fund Money?
The e-mail gets history wrong again when it blames Democrats alone for spending Social Security tax revenues for other purposes. It is true that Democratic President Lyndon Johnson was the first to lump the accounting for Social Security (and many other federal trust funds) into the "unified" federal budget. He announced this in 1968 in his State of the Union address:
But the same accounting practice has been followed by every president and Congress since, Democrat or Republican. It's as bipartisan as can be.
And anyway, it's not the unified-budget accounting that's at fault for allowing Congress to divert Social Security taxes to other purposes. Indeed, not long after Johnson first put them into the budget the trust funds were soon running large deficits. For seven years, from 1975 through 1981, the money was flowing out, not in, and there was no extra Social Security tax money for Congress to spend. You can see how the trust funds ebbed and flowed here .
It's true that large Social Security surpluses have in more recent years been used for other purposes -- by Democratic and Republican presidents alike, with Democrats in control of Congress, or with Republicans. What created those tempting surpluses was the 1983 law (mentioned above) signed by Reagan, which raised Social Security taxes in an attempt to repair the system's finances. There's plenty of bipartisan blame to go around on this one, too.
One Thing Right
The one item this e-mail gets right is that Democrats were behind an increase in taxes on Social Security benefits. That happened in 1993, as part of Bill Clinton's huge package of spending cuts and tax increases. No Republican voted for that and Vice President Al Gore did cast a tie-breaking vote in the U.S. Senate. That increased tax goes to help pay for Medicare and is paid only by those making $44,000 a year or more for a married couple. But as we've said before, neither party has made a serious move to repeal that tax since it was enacted. President Bush didn't propose repeal in either of his tax-cut bills for individuals in 2001 or 2003.
The author of "Lying e-mail #2" urges others to "pass it on" and "keep it going," and this collection of bogus claims does seem to be making the rounds. That's too bad. Anyone who believes this sort of trash won't be casting a very well-informed vote this fall.
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