WASHINGTON — How much damage can an ambassador to Belgium do? Probably not as much as an ardent antagonist of Social Security might unleash in a top policymaking position at the agency that millions of Americans depend on. The stick-in-your-eye recess appointments that the Bush administration made while the Senate was on its Easter break aren’t a surprise. The president’s undisguised disdain for Congress isn’t exactly news. The headline-grabbing appointment was that of Sam Fox to be ambassador to Belgium — timed to avoid a vote and allow Fox to serve for the rest of President Bush’s term.

Fox is a big Republican donor whose money helped support the infamously deceitful Swift Boat Veterans for Truth’s attacks on Democrat John Kerry’s military record during the 2004 presidential campaign. After Kerry questioned Fox about this during a February hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the nomination was sinking and Bush withdrew it — only to put his man into the Brussels job after the Senate left town. It’s a captivating show of high-stakes political retribution, so naturally the imbroglio got a breathless round of cable-TV coverage.

But the Fox appointment doesn’t have nearly the insidious potential to harm average Americans as the recess appointment of Andrew Biggs to be deputy commissioner of the Social Security Administration. Biggs is more than just a proponent of Bush’s failed proposal to change Social Security from a system of guaranteed government insurance to an investment vehicle dependent on individual savings. He is an architect of the libertarian project to undermine public confidence in Social Security to clear the way for dismantling it.

As Biggs sees it, Social Security is part of the broader “New Deal paradigm” of government supports for individuals that must be “overthrown.” He has drawn a parallel to Margaret Thatcher’s privatization of British industries, writing that Thatcher gave the British public an “incentive” to conclude for itself that state-run companies should be in private hands.

Likewise, Biggs wrote in a 1999 article, flagging public confidence in Social Security’s financial outlook might help send this “liberal sacred cow to the slaughterhouse.”

Biggs’ antipathy toward Social Security is so deep that Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus — an economic moderate — refused to take up the nomination. Then Bush promoted him anyway (Biggs already was at the agency in a lesser job). Baucus said the public took Social Security privatization “off the table” by rejecting it unequivocally when Bush pushed it.

It’s awfully hard to imagine that a Congress now controlled by Democrats — who resurrected their political fortunes in part by blocking Social Security privatization — would go along with a new private accounts scheme. But that doesn’t make Biggs harmless. “You’re putting a guy in as policy director who does not believe in social insurance,” says Barbara Kennelly, president of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare and a former counsel to the Social Security commissioner during the Clinton administration. “He can undermine the program from within.”

Biggs told me in an e-mail that he would separate his personal views from his job. He also said the agency’s role is to provide lawmakers and the public with information to help them “in reaching consensus” on Social Security.

Never mind that a consensus already has been reached: Americans don’t want to trade guaranteed benefits for unpredictable investments. Remember, control over information — dare we call it propaganda? — is what conservatives see as crucial to convincing people to scrap the program.

In 2005, Democrats on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform reported on how Social Security’s official statements changed during the Bush era. While estimates of Social Security’s long-term solvency improved over four years, the agency’s rhetoric about its own fiscal health became increasingly dire. “Public assurances that the Social Security system faces ‘no immediate crisis’ have been eliminated from agency presentations, and descriptions of the role Social Security plays in keeping seniors ‘out of poverty’ have been dropped,” the study showed. “In their place, the agency now repeatedly warns that Social Security is ‘unsustainable’ and ‘underfinanced’ and ‘must change.’ “

Last year, Social Security trustees reported that the system’s finances are largely unchanged — Social Security has sufficient funds to pay full benefits for the next 34 years. Nonetheless, the report warned that surpluses would “soon begin to decline” and said that Social Security and Medicare aren’t “sustainable.”

At this point, there’s nothing to be done about Biggs — except to show that public opposition to privatizing Social Security is insurmountable.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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