Getting the strongest possible bill

GETTING THE STRONGEST POSSIBLE BILL…. John Judis notes a conversation he had with a friend who’s disappointed with the compromises that have been part of the health care reform debate. The friend, Judis said, has taken to comparing President Obama unfavorably to FDR.

In response, Judis reminded his friend about the original Social Security Act of 1935: “[I]t was a bare shell of what it became in the 1950s after amendment. Benefits were nugatory. And most important, coverage was denied to wide swaths of the workforce, including farm laborers.” In particular, farm laborers were excluded from Social Security in order to get racist Southern Democrats to vote for the legislation.

Judis concluded, “[T]he bill that the House passed last Saturday is considerably more robust that the original Social Security bill. But don’t tell my friend that.”

Paul Begala raised a similar point in August.

No self-respecting liberal today would support Franklin Roosevelt’s original Social Security Act. It excluded agricultural workers — a huge part of the economy in 1935, and one in which Latinos have traditionally worked. It excluded domestic workers, which included countless African Americans and immigrants. It did not cover the self-employed, or state and local government employees, or railroad employees, or federal employees or employees of nonprofits. It didn’t even cover the clergy. FDR’s Social Security Act did not have benefits for dependents or survivors. It did not have a cost-of-living increase. If you became disabled and couldn’t work, you got nothing from Social Security.

If that version of Social Security were introduced today, progressives like me would call it cramped, parsimonious, mean-spirited and even racist. Perhaps it was all those things. But it was also a start. And for 74 years we have built on that start. We added more people to the winner’s circle: farmworkers and domestic workers and government workers. We extended benefits to the children of working men and women who died. We granted benefits to the disabled. We mandated annual cost-of-living adjustments. And today Social Security is the bedrock of our progressive vision of the common good.

Roosevelt, the towering political figure of the 20th century, with an electoral mandate, a Democratic Congress, and the stench of a failed Republican president fresh on the nation’s mind, had to take what he could get on Social Security, which was far less than what he wanted.

This is not to say health care reform advocates should accept every abhorrent conservative demand, just to get something done. Democratic policymakers have a rare opportunity in front of them, and there’s no reason in the world they can’t pass a strong bill, with a public option, and without measures like the Stupak amendment.

Indeed, let’s be clear. There may be some Dems who say, “Well, the reform bill could be better, so could the original Social Security bill have been, so let’s not fight too hard for progressive goals.” This attitude is entirely wrong and self-defeating.

That said, the Social Security example is illustrative — even after historic policy milestones, the work will continue. Where reform advocates come up short this year — if they come up short — it’s not the end of the fight.