Fast forward our HCR time machine to 1949. World War II is in the past, a new decade is just beyond, the first Social Security benefits are being paid to retired workers, and the future looks bright.
Well, it looks bright for some, anyway. For others, not so much. President Truman has sent a budget to Congress on three occasions with expansions in Social Security coverage, addition of a medical benefit covered by a small increase in the payroll tax, and increased benefits to Social Security recipients.
The amendments broadened the Social Security Act to cover roughly 10 million additional persons, including regularly employed farm and domestic workers, self-employed people other than doctors, lawyers, engineers and certain other professional groups, certain Federal employees not covered by government pension plans, and workers in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. On a voluntary group basis, coverage was offered to employees of State and local governments not under public employee retirement systems and to employees of nonprofit organizations. The amendments also made benefits available to dependent husbands, dependent widowers, and, under certain circumstances, children of insured women (under the 1939 amend-
ments such benefits were not generally available to children of women workers). In addition, Congress raised benefits by about 77 percent; raised the wage base from $3,000 to $3,600; raised employer and employee taxes gradually…
The final plan didn’t look much like Truman’s original proposal, which had requested an increase in the wage base to $4,200, a disability benefit, and medical benefits for all (Medicare). The House Ways & Means committee stripped the medical benefit, lowered the wage base, and removed the lowered age for women’s eligibility (proposed at age 60 in Truman’s request).
Republicans objected, in particular to the disability benefits. Their argument:
…aid to the disabled should be limited to charity aid provided under the proposed public assistance program for the permanently and totally disabled.
Ah, the old charity argument again. Cue strains of “they can always go to the ER.”
In typical Republican fashion, they threatened to bury the bill in amendments upon amendments, causing the House Ways & Means committee to delay sending the bill to the House for a vote until they could secure a commitment from the Rules Committee to bar all floor amendments.
As you might imagine, Republicans were not amused.
On October 4, 1949, Mr. Sabath (D-Ill.) offered a resolution for four days of debate on HR 6000, with only the Committee on Ways and Means having the right to offer amendments, and with only the motion to recommit being in order.
Those favoring the resolution for a closed rule stated that the Ways and Means Committee had devoted six months to considering the bill, had heard testimony from 250 witnesses and thus knew best how to improve the program. Those opposing the closed rule said the bill was very controversial and that the whole House should settle difficult questions of policy. They said the closed rule negated the importance of other House Members and in fact usurped their rights.
In 2010, the arguments are quite similar from the Republicans. The focus is on process, the arguments shrill, stomping of feet and waving of 2000 page “monstrosities”, demonstrations on the lawn of the Capitol and a barrage of advertising day in, and day out. Today’s talk shows are filled with talk of “deeming” and “repeal”. (If you put a singsong quality to that phrase, there are lots of childhood tunes that fit.)
But wait! The Republicans were not without a plan. Here’s theirs:
The minority bill,HR 6297, introduced by Mr. Kean (R-N.J.) on October 3, 1949, held the wage base to $3,000; recommended greater coverage for domestic workers so that those who were less regularly employed would be included; exempted teachers, firemen, and policemen with their own pension systems from coverage; confined disability payments to the public assistance program; and recommended that Congress establish an independent social security system in Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and other possessions rather than include them in the existing OASI program.
By today’s standards, that plan was downright liberal.
The House passed HR6000 on October 5, 1949. Now it was the Senate’s turn.
The Senate, running true to form, did not take up the bill until mid-1950. It was reported out of the Senate Finance Committee without the disability benefit OR the medical benefit, and floor debate began.
Republicans in the Senate were mostly concerned with how the plan was paid for. Rather than creating and funding reserves in a trust fund, they wanted everyone age 65 to receive a flat benefit which was paid for out of that years’ budget. While their effort was defeated, they were able to secure a promise that it would be studied in the future and the Senate bill passed on a vote of 81-2.
In conference committee, the House disability benefit was dropped in favor of the Republicans’ “charity only” proposal, and the amendments adopted.
If one were to compare what President Truman requested with what he got, I believe we could say it was “less than perfect but at least 10 million more people weren’t left in the cold.”
In 1952, a new round of amendments was proposed to strengthen OASI, including a reconstituted disability “freeze” integrated with state benefits, and a provision for the Federal Security Agency to make disability determinations, using their own doctors. The AMA was adamantly opposed, arguing that allowing the FSA to make disability determinations “would lead to socialized medicine.” HR7800 was defeated on that basis, sent back to committee, and brought back to the House floor in June.
An amended version of the revised bill empowered the FSA to make disability determinations, but omitted the language specifying how the FSA administrator should do so. Mr. Reed said “…let no person on this floor be deceived. You have the same old HR7800 here before you. While the socialized medicine advocates pretend to remove the specific instructions to the Administrator, they now give him more powers under general provisions of the law than he had before. You have socialized medicine here stronger in this bill than was HR 7800, heretofore defeated.*’
However, it was an election year, and the bill passed the House by a large margin.
Once again, the Senate Finance Committee took their time. Claiming inadequate time to consider the disability provisions, they stripped it from the Senate version before putting it to a vote. It passed on a voice vote, and was sent to conference committee.
If only it ended there. But in 1954, major changes were afoot.
1954 and beyond
A new Administration has taken office. One of President Eisenhower’s first acts is to send a request to Congress to expand Social Security coverage in a fashion similar to the expansion first proposed by President Truman. Congress complied, and the amendments were signed into law on September 1, 1954.
In 1956, another round of amendments lifted the disability “freeze” and added an official disability benefit to Social Security for workers “totally and permanently disabled” age 50 to 64 who met the minimum coverage requirements.
For the rest of the decade, the only changes to Social Security were increases in benefit levels. But in 1960, the debate would turn to medical benefits.
Tune in for HCR History, Chapter 3 next: The Great Medicare Debate.
- HCR History, Chapter I: Everything old is new again.
- HCR History, Chapter 3: The Great Medicare Debate