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Interest Groups Strive to Influence Views on Issue

BY Phillip O'Connor
by Phillip O'Connor on 10/16/00.

Whatever you believe about Social Security, chances are there's somebody working hard to change your mind.

For more than two decades, interest groups have employed think tanks to wage a multimillion-dollar fight for public opinion. Using a combination of Capitol Hill briefings and forums, public seminars, position papers, policy briefs, books, Web sites, polls, focus groups, advertisements and media appearances, the think tanks are defining the Social Security debate in Washington, on Main Street and in the nation's media.

On one side are Wall Street firms, corporations, conservative foundations, Libertarians and wealthy families who want to significantly alter Social Security or do away with the 65-year-old program completely.

For conservative foundations and their wealthy benefactors who favor free markets and limited government, the interest is ideological.

For Wall Street, the interest is financial. Allowing workers to divert one-sixth of the current 12.4 percent Social Security payroll tax to self-directed private accounts would free up tens of billions of dollars annually that workers could invest in stocks, bonds and mutual funds.

Allied against such groups are the typical defenders of Social Security, including organized labor, groups for older people and other centrist, liberal and progressive groups.

But even some of the longtime allies acknowledge being outflanked by a sophisticated, mixed-media blitz that they say eroded public confidence in the system by hammering home themes that Social Security is in financial crisis, is a bad deal for younger Americans and can't survive without significant changes.

Providing the campaign's intellectual ammunition are some of the top national conservative policy institutions, including the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, Center for Strategic and International Studies and Citizens for a
Sound Economy.

The campaign frequently suggests that the Social Security trust funds have been looted or that the retirement of the baby boom generation and the doubling of the elderly population is leading Social Security toward bankruptcy.

Their arguments are aided by long-range projections made by the Social Security Administration that show the program may only be able to pay 72 cents of every promised dollar beginning in 2038 if no changes are made to the system.

"Generational inequities"

In making their case to younger workers, the think tanks often emphasize the potential shortfall and what they characterize as the "generational inequities" in Social Security.

The think tanks often argue that younger workers would be better off if allowed to invest some of their Social Security payroll tax in stocks, bonds or mutual funds.

The argument rings true with many younger Americans who came of age in a soaring stock market and are more knowledgeable and comfortable with investments than their grandparents. Today, more than one out of five adults owns stock directly, while three out of five participate in the stock market through mutual funds.

Some think tanks boast of their efforts in convincing the country that Social Security is broken and should be replaced.

"There's probably no organization out there that's done as much work or had as much influence as we have," said Michael Tanner, who directs the Project on Social Security Privatization for the Cato Institute, a Libertarian think tank that advocates limited government and is among the most ardent of those fueling skepticism about Social Security.

"We've had breakfasts with most of the Washington reporters and most of the major reporters who cover Social Security as a regular beat," Tanner said. "We 'll have them in for breakfast or lunch and sit down and brief them. We've been doing it now with the political reporters who are covering the (presidential) candidates."

Cato officials also travel the country to meet with newspaper editorial boards and appear on local television and radio.

It's a similar story at the Concord Coalition, another think tank that uses its Web site, literature, lectures, op-ed newspaper articles and media briefings to argue that Social Security is "going bankrupt" and is "fiscally unsustainable."

Concord advocates reducing benefits to higher-income workers and private accounts while encouraging Americans to save more for retirement.

Concord was founded in 1992 by former Sens. Paul Tsongas, D-Mass., and Warren Rudman, R-N.H., and former Commerce Secretary Peter Peterson. Peterson, now an investment banker, is the man many credit with creating current doubts about the long-term viability of Social Security.

Concord issues a steady stream of press releases into America's newsrooms containing its latest research or statistics that show Social Security cannot be sustained. Concord's Web site includes "Facing Facts Alerts" with titles such as "America's Coming Retirement Crisis," "What's Really Behind the Trust Fund Gimmickry" and "What Happens to Benefits When Social Security Goes Bankrupt?"

While Concord and Cato focus most of their efforts on policymakers and the media, other think tanks, such as Citizens for a Sound Economy, direct most of their attention at grass-roots activists. Brothers David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries, one of the nation's wealthiest privately owned businesses, helped found Citizens for a Sound Economy in 1984. The group's 250,000 members advocate returning economic decisions to citizens.

Based in Washington, Citizens operates chapters in about a dozen states where employees work full time recruiting new members.

The groups hold town hall meetings and their members attend county fairs, Rotary Club, chamber of commerce meetings and other public gatherings spreading their message that the current system is financially stressed and a bad deal for younger workers.

The effectiveness of groups such as Concord, Cato and Citizens worry many Social Security supporters, including Bette Cooper, communications director for the National Council of Senior Citizens. The group opposes any changes to the program.

"We were very concerned that the message that was getting out was very one-sided, and we decided something had to be done," Cooper said.

In recent years, the council, which represents a half-million older people, joined with the 30 million member AARP, the AFL-CIO and other organizations to launch a countercampaign touting the benefits of Social Security.

But the countercampaign often finds itself on the defensive.

"In terms of resources, we are just totally outnumbered," said Diana Zuckerman, director of the National Center for Policy Research for Women and Families, which opposes privatization. "There are quite a few progressive organizations that have gotten involved, but they don't have the money, numbers of staff or public relations firms to get the message out."