Rick Perry’s Social Security Conversation

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Rick Perry wants to have a conversation about federal entitlement programs. That conversation is, in effect, about how to end them. “I would suggest a legitimate conversation about [letting] the states keep their money and implement the programs,” he said of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid to Newsweek’s Andrew Romano last year. This is, naturally, terrible politics. Social Security and Medicare are immensely popular, even among Republican voters. And that’s a pretty good explanation for why he’s tempering this line of argument (along with a few other federalist notions) now that he has designs on the White House.  “I’m for having a conversation with the country about how we find some solutions,” he told reporters at the Iowa state fair. “Having the states doing it is one of the ways.” But if his book is any indication, Perry’s conversation isn’t one he imagines playing out in the Executive or Legislative branches. 

In Fed Up!, he makes the argument that entitlement programs surpass the scope of federal government’s authority under the Constitution ans should therefore be abolished. And musings about Social Security’s constitutionality, popular among the Tea Party, may actually be best explained by the program’s widespread popularity.Adam Cohen, drawing comparisons to some campaign finance and affirmative action laws, argues that constitutional challenges are essentially an argument of necessity for anyone who wishes to roll back entitlement programs simply because they are politically untouchable. Can’t get Cognress to repeal elements of McCain-Feingold? Take Citizens United to the Supreme Court. That is what Perry’s conversation is about.

Of course, unlike McCain-Feingold, there’s pretty strong precedent on this one:

Social Security critics do not like to talk about the fact that the Supreme Court definitively put the question to rest in 1937. After Congress adopted the Social Security Act at President Franklin Roosevelt’s urging, it was challenged on constitutional grounds. In Helvering v. Davis, the Supreme Court upheld the act by a 7-2 vote. Justice Benjamin Cardozo, writing for the majority, said the Taxing and Spending Clause authorized Congress to levy taxes and spend money to advance the “general welfare” and that Congress was within its right to find “that the award of old age benefits would be conducive to the general welfare.”