Pete Stark gets down and dirty on Social Security

Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, is hitting back against his Democratic challenger by accusing him of “opening the door to massive changes” in Social Security, threatening “millions of seniors and their beneficiaries.”

But it seems he’s playing it a bit fast and loose with what his opponent, Dublin councilman and Alameda County prosecutor Eric Swalwell, actually said.

This dustup began in August Swalwell’s call for “closing a loophole” in Social Security that lets children collect benefits even if their parents are age-eligible but still working and collecting salaries in excess of the earning cap – like Stark’s kids do.

The San Francisco Chronicle in August reported that Stark’s minor children – he has a 16-year-old and 11-year-old twins – collect benefits. Stark, 81, collects a $174,000 annual salary as a congressman, but his kids remain able to get the payments.

“Every person should receive the benefits to which he or she paid into and is entitled,” Swalwell had said at the time. “But, just because it’s legal, doesn’t make it right. The purpose of granting Social Security benefits to children of retirees is to stabilize the family’s income – the only income of the family – and ensure the minor children are receiving the necessities they need. Clearly, the situation in the Stark household is not the intended purpose of this benefit and he’s diverting government money to his kids.”

“Minor children should only be allowed to collect Social Security benefits if their parent is collecting benefits earned because they are retired, not working and not earning other income above the earnings cap,” Swalwell had said.

The Stark campaign responded that Stark’s children were benefiting from a system into which Stark had paid all his life, just like anyone else’s kids could, and that to change the system would amount to means testing to determine who does and doesn’t get benefits.

Now Stark’s campaign has posted this video, the second entry in his “Pete Stark Answers the Tough Questions” series:

But at no point has Swalwell said he “would support the Romney-Ryan plan to undo Social Security and Medicare,” as Stark claims.

Stark’s campaign also this week sent out a mailer with a kindly-looking elderly couple on the cover and the caption “Putting Seniors At Risk.” Inside, the mailer trumpets “Congressional candidate Eric Swalwell: Ending Social Security as we know it.”

“The Romney-Ryan plan puts seniors’ financial security at risk,” the mailer says. “Instead of standing up to the Romney-Ryan plan, Eric Swalwell has joined them in attacking Social Security. Swalwell proposed a plan for Social Security that would cut guaranteed benefits, opening the door the massive changes that would threaten millions of seniors and their beneficiaries who rely on Social Security as a source of income. Swalwell’s plan would break the promise that is at the heart of Social Security: all Americans pay into it and all Americans benefit from it.”

The mailer also details Stark’s opposition to efforts to change or cut Social Security and Medicare, which is accurate. But nowhere does the mailer describe the specific loophole Swalwell chose to cut.

It quotes a subsequent Chronicle story as reporting that “Social Security experts, liberal and conservative, agreed that Swalwell’s proposal would require some form of means testing.” But the mailer doesn’t quote that same story’s next line: “They also said families in Stark’s position – a wealthy senior with minor children – are rare.”

The Romney campaign’s website describes the GOP ticket’s Social Security platform thus:

First, for future generations of seniors, Mitt believes that the retirement age should be slowly increased to account for increases in longevity.
Second, for future generations of seniors, Mitt believes that benefits should continue to grow but that the growth rate should be lower for those with higher incomes.

Romney also has discussed means testing for ALL seniors, not just for those with kids receiving benefits, as well as adding individual retirement accounts as an option.

At a meeting with the Bay Area News Group editorial board in May, Swalwell called stabilizing Social Security “a big problem, it’s a big concern” best addressed by raising the payroll tax cap from its current level of $110,000. He also called for building into the system an index that would automatically raise retirement ages in proportion to life expectancies.

Stark also called for raising the tax cap and said he would be willing to scale up the retirement age; he said that to guarantee current benefit levels indefinitely, the payroll tax would need to be increased by 3 percent – 1.5 percent for the worker, 1.5 percent for the employer. “It’s a strong social program that I think has been the backbone of protecting the less fortunate in this country, and I think we can make it work.”

See photos of the Stark mailer, after the jump…

(click to enlarge)

Josh Richman

Josh Richman covers state and national politics for the Bay Area News Group. A New York City native, he earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and reported for the Express-Times of Easton, Pa. for five years before coming to the Oakland Tribune and ANG Newspapers in 1997. He is a frequent guest on KQED Channel 9’s “This Week in Northern California;” a proud father; an Eagle Scout; a somewhat skilled player of low-stakes poker; a rather good cook; a firm believer in the use of semicolons; and an unabashed political junkie who will never, EVER seek elected office.

  • Elwood

    “But it seems he’s playing it a bit fast and loose with what his opponent, Dublin councilman and Alameda County prosecutor Eric Swalwell, actually said.”

    Crazy old Pete is lying again! What a surprise! The only question is whether it’s dementia or deliberate.

    The stink of desperation hovers around the crazy old Pete campaign.

  • Emmy Bea

    Pete Stark should be ashamed that he has his children taking money from Social Security; he made those children; he can afford to provide for them and he should do so. Vote for Eric Swalwell

  • GV Haste

    Too funny. Obviously this video was done the exact same day as the last one. Again, Pete was reading from a script, no looking into the camera.

    So, they got Pete looking nice and sharp, on one day, then had him read several scripts.
    Meanwhile he refuses to meet with any open group anywhere in his district.

    Under ideal settings and when fully scripted, Pete can read his lines. Other than that, in 2012, he hasn’t shown himself capable of appearing in public and making sense without blowing up his campaign in one gaffe or another.

    He has retirement stamped on his forehead.
    I’m sorry but its kind of like the butcher in Safeway marking down the meat that is just about going off.
    Trying to sell it quickly, or repackaging it to appear fresher.
    No, the “pull-date” is November 6th on this congressman.

  • JohnW

    I’m really opposed to the oft-stated idea of just lifting the cap on wages subject to the payroll tax. For somebody who is doing well by earning double the current cap (i.e, making $220k vs $110k current cap), the 6.2% tax would be an extra $6,800 without getting additional benefits in return. If they are in the 28% income tax bracket, that 6.2% takes them to a 34.2% marginal rate, a 22% increase in the rate.

    Whatever we do to fix SS, it shouldn’t involve extra taxes. Any revenue we get by increasing taxes should go into things that build the future for the next generation — education, infrastructure and R&D.

  • GV Haste

    JohnW, uh, so if you won’t raise the cap, do you propose raising the 6.2% while keeping the cap steady except for allowing a CPI index adjustment?

    Or do you propose raising the retirement age.
    I believe that for those born prior 1954 its already age 66 for full benefits scaled up to 67 for those born after 1960.
    How many years would you add on?
    The final solution will be a mix on 1. raising the cap, 2. raising the age, and 3. raising the tax rate.

    Or cutting all the benefits a portion.

    At any rate, cutting out the Stark loop-hole would be nice start. If you are of retirement age, but earn over the cap, your children don’t get cared for by Social Security.
    Not bad enough that Stark gets his $174,000, but his wife has almost always worked. So we have two wealthy, fully employeed parents, collecting Social Security for their children.
    What, should we have also given Pete’s kids WIC coupons? They already get a medical and dental plan better than any of us have.

  • JohnW

    GV Haste,

    By the way, it’s really 5.9%. The other .3% is for disability (the trust fund for which is about to run dry). Same thing for the employer share.

    I agree they need to look at some benefits that go to dependents and spouses. Those siphon away money that is supposed to pay benefits for the people who actually paid into the system.

    People like to whine that SS would be just fine if the politicians hadn’t stolen the money to pay for general government. Not true. Repaying that money is what the trust fund is all about. Drawing from the trust fund is what enables the program to keep paying full scheduled benefits until 2033 or so. After that, the program can only pay out what comes in from the payroll tax. As you probably know, they estimate that would be enough to cover about 75% of the scheduled benefits.

    Other than raising the cap or the tax rate, none of the various proposals change the basic math. They don’t change the pot of money, just the way we choose to distribute it.

    I’m definitely in favor of going to the “chained CPI” adjustment as one of the more gradual and relatively painless way of reducing benefits. I would apply it to anybody born in 1946 or later. I was born in 1946, so that would include me; although I am not currently taking benefits.

    Currently, only up to 85% of benefits are included in taxable income. I would treat SS as any other income and tax it at whatever income tax applies based on the person’s total income. As is already the case, all taxes on benefits would go into the SS program, not to the general fund.

    I’m not very keen on raising the retirement age, but that might have to be part of the solution. But I worry about people who either become disabled or are laid off in their late 50’s and making them wait longer to get benefits. I can’t see going past 67. People might be willing to work to 70, but that doesn’t mean their employers are willing to keep them around that long.

    I would also be in favor of a voluntary “personal account” program, but no regular SS payroll taxes would be diverted to pay for that. It would be paid for with money people pay in over and above the current payroll tax.

    I’m mostly against means testing. It could be used to treat low income people more generously in terms of the CPI index. But I wouldn’t means test in the sense of disqualifying people from receiving benefits due to their higher income. That would turn it from a social insurance program into a welfare program that would lose political support over time.

    As I’ve previously stated, I’m generally against raising either the cap or the tax rate. I’m talking about the 5.9%. The .3% for disability probably should go up.

    Whether it’s SS or Medicare, we have to keep a lid on what share of the total pie goes to support the elderly. That’s harsh. But if we don’t do that, there won’t be anything left to build the future. In the case of Medicare, I don’t object to the Paul Ryan/Mitt Romney notion that people are going to have to pay a higher share of the cost of the program. But I do object to voucherizing the program and turning the insurance industry loose on 80-year old people. Paul Ryan is too young to remember that one reason Medicare was created was that the insurance industry didn’t want anything to do with the elderly, for obvious reasons.

    There is one exception to my resistance to more taxes for SS. Reagan’s Social Security commission set up the payroll tax cap (which indexes up a little each year anyway) so that it would always cover 90% of all aggregated wages. However, they didn’t anticipate that most of the real wage growth over the next 30 years would go to upper income people whose wages are mostly way beyond reach of the payroll cap. So, we are currently taxing only about 85% of aggregate wages, and falling. So, I would favor something that would get to those upper end wages to get the payroll tax coverage back to 90%. People have discussed ways of doing that without burdening somebody whose income is only modestly above the cap.

    Those are my thoughts. Yours?

  • RR senile columnist

    The big problem with the SSA and Medicare is simply this: The Retired are living too dang long for any good they are doing. Make ’em work longer if!n they are gonna live longer.

  • Truthclubber

    Three words to describe Stark’s latest mailer:

    Very Effective Messaging! (you go, girl — Sharon Cornu!)

    Two words to describe the GOP’s solution to the Medicare/Social Security budget hole:

    Soylent Green! (Brought to you by Bain Capital!)

  • JohnW

    Re: #7 RR

    Yes, living too long and too many of them (us). But we’re working on the longevity problem with our Early Childhood Diabetes Development and Inner City Gun Proliferation initiatives. [seriously, a recent report shows we in the U.S. are going in reverse on longevity for the first time in modern history]. You can see why Republicans don’t want health care. Obviously counterproductive to the anti-longevity agenda. Who needs death panels. Just give ’em lots of sugary stuff and guns. It’s a bit like Mitt’s “self-deportation” idea.

    As for those of us who so thoughtlessly arranged to be born as part of the Baby Boom generation — with more than 5 million of us having hit age 65 so far and more hitting that number at the rate of 300,000 per month — it sounds like what we need is an old folks version of “The Hunger Games.” This will thin the herd and provide a new entertainment-based revenue source to pay for SS and Medicare for the survivors.

    See, no sweat. It all works out.

  • moderatevoter

    These social security mailers by Pete Stark – which completely distort Eric Swalwell’s views on social security – he is rock solid in support of the program as it’s now structured – are pretty crude, a crass effort by Stark’s shipwreck-of-a- campaign to confuse and mislead voters. I don’t think they will work in the 15th district, voters in this district are pretty sophisticated.
    The 81 year old Stark is trying to turn around a major campaign issue – which involves the fact the multi-millionaire Stark – who is worth 26 million dollars – marched his kids down to the social security office to sign up for social security. The goal here by Pete Stark was, of course, to shift the cost of his teenagers cheeseburgers, I-Pod’s, and prom tickets over on to the fed’s, tax dollars now are financing Pete Stark’s kids shopping sprees at the mall!
    I think the fact the multi-millionaire Stark – who has an annual income that is a couple of million dollars a year, plus his $154,000 a year Congressional salary – would be sticking taxpayers with the cost of his teenagers trips to the mall is just revolting, I mean we have a 16 million dollar deficit in the US, the US is going bankrupt, yet here’s our local Congressman scheming to shift the cost of his kids care over on the fed’s. Stark can easily pay for his kids – but he cynically “gamed” the system to shift the cost of his kids over on to the federal goverment. It’s “welfare” for people that don’t need it – the Stark family is awash in money – yet they are drawing down this money and not even thinking twice about it.
    Is this responsible leadership? Shouldn’t we expect more from our local Congressman? In fact, Stark has a long history of “scamming” the system, he is rarely in his office in DC, he almost never visits the district he represents, he missed 1/3 of his votes in the last Congressional session, yet he is drawing down a princely $154,000 salary for the work he isn’t doing.
    Stark’s answer to this is to dump these false and misleading mailers on voters – mailers that are paid for by Washington DC FactCats and lobbyists. Geez I hope this guy get’s crushed at the polls in November, we need responsible leadership in Washington, leaders that look out for the taxpayers.

  • moderatevoter

    #10 Correction, I meant to say the US has a 16 trillion dollar deficit, money that is mostly being borrowed from China.

  • GV Haste

    Congressional salary $174,000, not $154,000

  • JohnW

    Re: 11

    Correction, the US has a $16.1 Trillion national DEBT (not DEFICIT), of which $11.3 T is debt held by the public (bond holders, domestic and foreign) and $4.8 T is intragovernmental debt (mostly the Social Security and Medicare trust fund accounts).

    We have an annual budget DEFICIT of about $1.1 Trillion, nearly all of which is due to the recession, continuation of the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts, the 75% unfunded portion of the Medicare prescription drug program, spending for the war in Afghanistan, and structural deficit due to rising Medicare & Social Security costs as the Baby Boomers enter those programs. If we eliminated tax expenditures such as income tax deductions, exemptions and credits, we would wipe out most of the deficit, even with the recession and the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts. It just takes politicians and voters growing up and facing the music.

  • RR, Senile Columnist

    Pete’s Greatest Speech (secretly recorded)
    My fellow citizens and neighbors, ladies and gentlemen of the press, friends, Romanians and countrymen:
    We are gathered here today to pay tribute, and a lot of it, to the brave men, living and dead, who so nobly fought for Social Security. We cannot add or subtract, multiply or divide, what they Arrrgh! Did here so nobly advanced. It is altogether fitting and proper that we do this, on this plot of land, this blessed plot, this England! Arrgh! Seldom, in the field of human legislation, have so many, so old, owed so much to so few, so well. Therefore, do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for me!
    Thank you, and the hell with it!

  • Truthclubber

    Just got the latest mailer from the Stark campaign today and IT IS A NUCLEAR BOMB against the Swellwell campaign!

    Takes Swellwell’s supposed youth sports coaching and uses it as a meat cleaver against him — posing him as a little tyke playing T-ball in the middle of a Major League baseball game!

    Yo, rookie! How dem big ol’ road signs (which ate up much of your budget) workin’ for ya NOW? Where’s Mama Tauscher’s apron strings to hang onto?

    I just love the baseball card of Swellwell — ha! Way to go, Cornu & Co! I can hardly wait to see what’s arriving next in my mailbox!

  • Elwood

    Stark is a dead stinking fish.

    They can send out a scurrilous mailer a day until hell freezes over and it will not affect in any way the coming Swalwell landslide.

  • JohnW

    Re: 14 RR

    First time I’ve ever seen a blog post that mixed together Abe, Winston and Ernest. Pretty clever.

  • Truthclubber

    @16 —

    I’ve copied same to repost it (along with your name and the actual results of that election) on November 7th, 2012.

  • Really?

    So when Stark calls out Swalwell’s means-testing plan and says it plays into the hands of Republicans, you call him out for embellishing? That’s fair, I guess…but when Swalwell flat-out lies about Stark’s stance on Citizens United, you ignore it? Come on.

  • Cindy Corrello Hilke

    Really – Pete never said he was in favor of Citizen’s United – his point was that if Corporations are people also then they need to be held to the same punishments and criminal prosecution for fraud the same way individuals are. To date, there are no criminal punishments for corporations who are guilty of criminal fraud in campaign funds – Cindy Corrello Hilke

  • Truthclubber

    @16 —


    Elwood says: October 6th, 2012 at 2:44 pm

    Stark is a dead stinking fish.

    They can send out a scurrilous mailer a day until hell freezes over and it will not affect in any way the coming Swalwell landslide.

    This (the above, typed verbatim from the printed copy that I proudly have in my possession) will be repeated on November 7th, 2012 along with the actual election results of that campaign.

  • Josh Richman

    @21 – Aw, Truthclubber, don’t be so hard on Elwood. You’ve both made errors predicting House race results before – and on the very same candidate, perhaps the only time the two of you have ever agreed:

    From Elwood, submitted on 2010/10/24 at 10:46 pm
    “Congressman Harmer! Congressman Harmer!
    “Get used to saying it boys!”

    From Truthclubber, Submitted on 2010/10/06 at 8:30 pm
    “Dear Truth Equalizer:
    “Harmer 52%, McNerney 48%.”

  • Truthclubber

    @22 —

    There’s a difference:

    I am comfortable eating my words — and he is NOT. (And he needs to learn how they taste…)

    Humble pie is good for the soul, so they say… 😉

    Prevents being “the greatest legend…in your OWN mind.”