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Don't take his name in vain

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In recent months, President Bush has continuously invoked my father, Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, as a purported champion of the White House plan to privatize Social Security. As my father is sadly no longer present to explain his views, I read through his writings to set the record straight.

There is a fundamental difference between Sen. Moynihan's view of Social Security and that of the White House. My father was committed to honoring the contract the government made with its citizens.

I think daily of his defense of the poor and the middle class, and his disdain for ideologues who would rip apart the safety net. In 1983, he wrote: "Cut back Social Security in desperation, and you abandon a solemn promise of the Democratic Party and of American society. This promise, once broken, will fracture society."

Today's debate parallels the battles of the 1980s. In 1981, President Ronald Reagan got tax cuts for special interests and created the largest federal deficits in history, up to that point. My father made his concerns clear: "The President's men really did believe that if you had a big tax cut, you would get a big increase in revenues ... now that they realized that their tax magic wasn't going to work, they tried another magic. They would convince everyone that the Social Security system was going bankrupt."

He went on, "These were the views of extreme conservatives who really had just never accepted the legitimacy of government-sponsored social insurance."

Moynihan believed that the deficits were deliberately created to attack benefit programs. In 1981, House leader Thomas (Tip) O'Neill of Boston, known in our house as "The Tipster," rejected Reagan's plan to drastically cut Social Security. Two years later, thanks to my father and his friend, Sen. Bob Dole, taxes and benefit adjustments were adopted that secured the system's solvency until 2060. President Reagan signed the bill in the Rose Garden, with Dole and Moynihan peering over his shoulder. I keep this photo on my wall.

In 1989, however, dismayed that the surpluses were being used to finance deficits, my father wrote: "There is an issue of integrity here. Thou Shalt Not Purloin Pension Funds ... These are Trust Funds. They are not to be spent for purposes other than for which they are deposited - and held in trust."

Which bring us to the present. President Bush invoked my father's name in a debate with John Kerry and in his State of the Union address. But President Bush failed to clarify that Moynihan proposed individual accounts as "add-ons" that would supplement Social Security, not as "carveouts" that would replace the funds.

In his 2001 Report of the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security, Moynihan wrote: "These accounts could be financed by the individual worker voluntarily adding 1% of his pay on top of the present 6.2% employee share of the payroll tax. The government could match the employee's contribution with a matching 1% of salary, drawn from general revenues." Extolling the "magic of compound interest," he proposed investments to create "an estate! For doormen, as well as those living in the duplexes above."

Does Bush seek to protect the 35 million men, women and children who depend on Social Security or to loot the trust fund to feed the deficit or satisfy right-wingers who never believed in government-sponsored social insurance?

Dad was fond of reminding us - whether at the dinner table or on the Senate floor - that Social Security was "special to New Yorkers" because its creators, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sen. Robert Wagner and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, were "gifts to the nation from our Empire State."

As a single mother, I fear for the survival of the social programs given to us in a precious trust. Let us defend the legacy of Roosevelt, Perkins, Wagner and Moynihan, lest society become irreparably broken.

Moynihan is director of the Moynihan Station Citizens Group.

Originally published on February 27, 2005

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