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Column: Senate Democrats turn up heat on Koch-'bankrolled’ Social Security trustee, provoke floor fracas

blahous
Former (and future?) Social Security Public Trustee Charles Blahous.
(C-SPAN)

The renomination of conservative Charles P. Blahous III as a Social Security public trustee, which has riled the program’s advocates, ran into another potential roadblock Tuesday. And the result was an angry exchange on the Senate floor. 

Three Democratic Senators — Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Charles E. Schumer of New York and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island — moved to refer Blahous’ renomination back to the Senate Finance Committee, which moved the nomination to the full chamber on an expedited basis earlier this month. The action may mean that the committee will have to hold a full hearing on the nomination, which could delay it for months. 

As we reported earlier, Blahous is a highly controversial figure in the Social Security community. He was executive director of President George W. Bush‘s 2001-2002 Commission to Strengthen Social Security, which aimed to privatize the program. He has argued that future benefits should be reduced from their currently legislated levels and suggested that the program is more generous to retirees than is “commonly understood” (which implies that proposals to expand benefits are unnecessarily generous). He opposed last year’s congressional reprieve for Social Security’s disability program, which saved millions of families from looming benefit cuts

Leveraging any and all government positions to advance their...agenda is the entire point of the Koch effort, and Mr. Blahous is a prime example.
Democratic Sens. Warren, Schumer and Whitehouse
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Despite this record, President Obama has renominated Blahous, a Republican, to a second four-year term as public trustee. The nomination was a two-fer — the public trustees serve as pairs, one from each party — and Blahous’ renomination was linked with the renomination of Democrat Robert D. Reischauer. But it was also unusual, since tradition calls for the trustees to serve single terms and then make way for new blood. 

The breach with tradition was the theme of Democratic opposition to Blahous when the nominations were first considered by the Senate Finance Committee on June 8. The panel approved both names on a party-line vote. Even before then, Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) had said he would place a senatorial hold on both nominations once they reached the floor. Under Senate rules, that would doom them. 

RELATED: Has President Obama appointed a fox to guard the Social Security henhouse? »

Tuesday’s action by Warren, Schumer and Whitehouse is directed at Blahous alone. They say it’s connected to their concern that Blahous is essentially a front for the right-wing billionaire Koch brothers. We asked Blahous to respond, but haven’t heard back.

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The public trustees are obscure cogs in the Social Security machine. They serve alongside four federal officials — the secretaries of Labor, Health and Human Services, and the Treasury, and the Social Security commissioner — to oversee publication of the program’s annual reports. The 2016 trustees report is due for release Wednesday. Blahous’ critics have claimed that he has pressured the other trustees into incorporating language in the reports overstating the financial crunch facing Social Security — including an assertion so controversial it prompted an unprecedented rebuttal by Stephen C. Goss, Social Security’s chief actuary.

“Leveraging any and all government positions to advance their pro-corporate, anti-government agenda is the entire point of the Koch effort,” the three Democrats wrote in the Huffington Post on June 7, “and Mr. Blahous is a prime example.” They named him as one of “an army of aggressive conservative ideologues groomed for government service and bankrolled by the Koch brothers.”

That’s a reference to his position as a senior research fellow at the Koch-funded Mercatus Center of George Mason University. From that perch, Schumer said during the finance committee’s June 8 session, Blahous has “published  a series of articles falsely warning Americans that Social Security is in a crisis state in need of immediate reform.” That’s an ideological “viewpoint that clearly aligns more with the Koch Brothers than with the beneficiaries this position is intended to protect,” Schumer said, and not an appropriate one for a public trustee. 

Committee Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) defended Blahous as the victim of election-year hyper-partisanship: “In even-numbered years, some people tend to go to polar extremes whenever anyone anywhere mentions Social Security and/or Medicare in a sentence,” he said. “There are some who, in any context, but particularly during election years, are so unwilling to have a reasonable discussion about these programs that they will go out of their way to silence any alternative viewpoints and stigmatize anyone who has ever expressed a contrary opinion.”

The Democrats’ maneuver apparently infuriated Hatch, who took to the Senate floor Tuesday to assail the Democrats for “shameful” actions that have “threatened the integrity of those [trustees’] reports with their allegations, as well as attacking an individual based on false claims.” That led in turn to an angry exchange between Hatch and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who asked him to describe his proposals for “stabilizing” the Social Security trust fund. (See video below.)

“We’ve had everything from more taxes to pay for it, which isn’t very exciting to most people around here, to more government programs to pay for it,” Hatch snapped back. Responding to accusations that Blahous was an advocate of privatization, Hatch said, “The last time I recall anybody talking about privatization was President Clinton.” Actually, Clinton’s term ended in 2001. George W. Bush, who followed him to the White House, empaneled the commission, of which Blahous was executive director, that was designed to promote the concept. 

The three Democrats’ motion is aimed at overruling the finance committee’s fast-track approval of Blahous. It means the panel may have to hold a formal hearing on his nomination, which was skipped the first time around and which may serve to focus more attention on Blahous’ viewpoints and his purported connections to the Koch interests. At the very least, it will delay the nomination for weeks, if not months — and possibly nullify it permanently, since the Senate will be firmly in presidential campaign mode by this fall, and may be inclined simply to leave the task of filling the empty trustees’ seats to the next president. 

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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UPDATES:

2:55 p.m.: This post has been updated with details of the Mikulski-Hatch floor fight.

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