BOB GARFIELD: When the Social Security program was created in 1935, it was envisioned as an independent agency. But, it was quickly usurped by President Roosevelt. For the next 55 years, it was controlled by the White House. Finally, in 1995, the agency attained its independence once again, courtesy of President Clinton, and ever since, it has been a neutral source of solid information for Democrats and Republicans. Well, earlier this year, Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman says he heard from employees at the Social Security administration that it once again was under the thumb of the executive branch, tailoring press releases and pamphlets to suit the White House's message. This comes on the heels of recent revelations that the Education Department paid a syndicated commentator to plug No Child Left Behind, and that the Department of Health and Human Services distributed PR videos disguised as news stories to flog changes in Medicare. So Waxman went to work, asking Social Security's Commissioner Joanne Barnhart for copies of the agency's communication materials to determine if, in fact, the White House is, once again, playing politics with the ostensibly independent Social Security Administration.
HENRY WAXMAN: The response was that the agency had not changed its communications messages over the past decade, and she sent us more than 4,000 pages of documents, including the communications strategies, press releases, website materials and materials for public presentations from 1995 to 2005. That's what we requested. And then, [LAUGHS] looking through that - maybe she thought we wouldn't look through it - but [LAUGHTER] looking through it, we saw these very distinct changes in the messages that the Social Security Administration's been giving out. The publications used to say, "We're running the Social Security System. You can count on Social Security in the future. This is the information you need to know." Since President Bush has come into office, however, the Social Security Administration's sending out a message that there may not be Social Security in the future. There's a crisis looming, and playing on people's fears to undermine public confidence in Social Security.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, give me some examples.
HENRY WAXMAN: The future of Social Security booklet, which used to begin with, (quote) "Will Social Security be there for you? Absolutely," (End quote) now begins, (quote) "Social Security must change." (End quote.) Let me give you another example of this. The annual Social Security Statement sent to Americans has dropped the assurance that "Social Security will be there when you retire," (in quotes) and no longer encourages Americans to think of Social Security as a (quote) "foundation on which to build your financial future." Even when we've had projections of the program's long-term solvency improving. So, you could see a clear pattern, setting the stage for what the president is now doing to privatize the program.
BOB GARFIELD: Putting aside the president's proposal for a moment, and the meaning of the word "crisis," I just want to establish one thing - is there anyone inside the Beltway or out who disagrees that, over the long haul, something's got to give - whether it's means testing or benefits reduction or higher payroll taxes - over time the system does need to be fixed. Isn't that right?
HENRY WAXMAN: It's safe to say that, over a long period of time, maybe starting in the 2040s, that there could be a real problem with Social Security, and so if we're going to be prudent about it, then we ought to plan for that now, especially to give people full assurances that the system will be working. There is a trust fund. Money for the trust fund has been used for other purposes, but that money must be paid back, and if it's paid back, we have a Social Security system that's going to be quite solvent for a good period of time.
BOB GARFIELD: So if the White House is, in fact, abusing the communications apparatus of the Social Security Administration, if it did the same at Health and Human Services over Medicare and has done the same at the Department of Education over No Child Left Behind, apart from issuing a press release and holding minority hearings of your own, what leverage do you have to change the administration's behavior?
HENRY WAXMAN: All we can do is try to get some public attention to these matters. It's not easy, when the Republicans are the ones that can call the hearings, which draw the press attention. All of this has resulted in the Bush administration, which has operated with an enormous amount of secrecy, to feel that it doesn't have to answer to anybody. We've asked independent groups, like the Government Accountability Office - GAO - to look into the way the administration was sending out video press releases showing people playing the role of the press people, and then just giving the administration's side of the story about how terrific this Medicare drug bill was. Well, it turned out, these actions were called, by the GAO, "covert propaganda."
BOB GARFIELD: Finally, the American people - do you see any evidence that, in the aggregate, they much care?
HENRY WAXMAN: I think people, if they realized and they knew what was happening, they would be annoyed, if not outraged, because they're the ones who are being played for fools. They're the ones who are being propagandized, and it's their tax dollars that are being used to convince them that they should support the government. That's what they do in countries like the old Soviet Union, but that's not what America is all about.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Congressman, thanks very much.
HENRY WAXMAN: Thank you for your interest.
BOB GARFIELD: Representative Henry Waxman is the ranking minority member of the House Committee on Government Reform. We asked the Social Security Administration to respond to Waxman's report. They gave us this statement: "The report is an attempt to paint a picture that is a gross misrepresentation of our continuing effort to educate the public. The future of Social Security is important for all Americans. Current and near retirees need to know that their Social Security benefits are secure. Younger workers, paying into the system, need to know that, unless changes are made, their promised benefits are not. Any suggestion that Social Security shrinks from its responsibility to inform the public is misguided." [MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, sports reporters gone wild, network news reporters gone sour, and investigative reporters gone - to the internet.