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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.