Battle over Social Security rages on in Senate contest

Baltimore,MD-3/25/16 -- Democratic Senate debate between Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen held at the University of Baltimoreâ¿¿s Learning Commons. Lloyd Fox/Staff #0677
Baltimore,MD-3/25/16 -- Democratic Senate debate between Donna Edwards and Chris Van Hollen held at the University of Baltimoreâ¿¿s Learning Commons. Lloyd Fox/Staff #0677 (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)

WASHINGTON — The two leading Democratic candidates running for Maryland's open Senate seat continue to battle over Social Security, using four-year-old ambiguous quotes as weapons in an effort to convince voters that the other candidate isn't committed to the program.

Rep. Donna F. Edwards of Prince George's County, who has been making the argument all year against rival Rep. Chris Van Hollen, elevated the attack Monday with a new television ad that points to a quote from Van Hollen in the Wall Street Journal in 2012 in which the Budget Committee leader suggests he might be open to raising the retirement age.


Van Hollen, a Montgomery County lawmaker, has fired back with his own series of quotes, noting Democrats in Congress were virtually all on the same page during the "fiscal cliff" fight and that Edwards said things that seem not far off the comments she is criticizing now.

Context has been lacking throughout the debate. Many of the remarks are so vague that it's easy for anyone to read their preferred meaning into the words. In other instances, the context of the quote has entirely changed the meaning. What follows is the most cited quotes both candidates said at the time -- and the context in which those comments were offered.


First, Van Hollen's remarks at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council meeting in Washington, D.C., in 2012 -- the quote Edwards relies on in her new ad. Edwards argues this demonstrates Van Hollen was willing to "trade" cuts to Social Security in order to reach a deal on deficit reduction. Van Hollen would counter that he specifically says he wouldn't make changes to Social Security as part of a budget deal.

Next, an Edwards interview on Fox News Sunday from 2011, in which she says "everything has to be on the table." And also a quote in Politco focused on Medicare, not Social Security, in which she says "let's look at the whole thing." Van Hollen supporters say that proves Edwards was toeing the same line. Edwards backers would counter that, in context, the Fox News quote has more to do with defense cuts than entitlements.


The questioner is Alan Murray, the deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal. The transcript was provided by The Wall Street Journal: CEO Council 2012, though it has been edited slightly by The Sun to reduce conversational stuttering and interruptions. The video of the exchange is available on C-SPAN, and the relevant section begins at the 11:50 mark. 

MURRAY: But a couple of other simple things that have been suggested. Raise the retirement age. It doesn't make any sense in a world where people -- live as long as they do today to have the retirement age be the same or just slightly higher than it was several decades ago.

VAN HOLLEN: Well, in Social Security I think that, number one, we should create a process like we had with Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill, but some specifics: I think we should look at the early retirement age in Social Security, which is 62, currently, and look at ways to create incentives for people to be working longer.

And that means doing things like increasing what the early retirement penalty, which has the joint benefit effect, joint beneficial effect, of reducing some Social Security costs but also keeping people working longer, providing for their families and of course generating more income for the economy and for the Treasury.

So I think there are other things you can do but, look, I'm open to a conversation about this. I think when it comes to things like Social Security, again, you've gotta take a mixed approach. I mean if you look at Simpson Bowles or other plans, again, they have a combination of additional revenue, along with spending reform.

MURRAY: But you're willing to at least look at that?

VAN HOLLEN: I'm willing to consider all these ideas as part of an overall plan. But, again, I don't think we should jump to the solutions which simply -- especially in Medicare -- that simply transfer costs. And within Social Security I think there are actually other ideas, some of which some of us discussed in the super committee, unfortunately to no avail.

MURRAY: Social Security has to be a part of this?

VAN HOLLEN: I think we should look at Social Security off budget. So that's what Simpson Bowles did. In other words, Simpson Bowles said, "Let's look at strengthening Social Security, but we're not gonna do it as part of our deficit reduction targets." And so I think there's room for a conversation there. What I think others have said is that they don't want that to be part of the "how you calculate your deficit reduction number targets."


Edwards appeared on Fox News Sunday on May 29, 2011, opposite former Rep. Allen West, a Florida Republican, during an earlier fiscal crisis that led to the Budget Control Act. The host was Chris Wallace. The entire transcript of the budget exchange is also available on the network's website.

WEST: Well, the important thing is this: With President George W. Bush, he grew government. And he increased the government spending. So, you cannot have a cut in taxes and also have a gross enlargement of government. That's one of the things that we don't want to see happen. I got to tell you, you know, here I have been here in Congress for about five months. And I have legislation that passed that will save the American taxpayers $80 million because I found three wasteful Department of Defense programs. And so, the thing is, while each and every one of us up here in our respective committees or whatever looking for those wasteful programs so we can cut those expenses.

WALLACE: Congresswoman Edwards, what do you think of the GOP plan as I just outlined it? And I'd also like you to answer this -- and go ahead and talk directly to Congressman West, as you do. The Obama administration pumped $1 trillion in stimulus into the economy. The Federal Reserve has pumped trillions more. We've got 9 percent unemployment. We've got 1.8 percent GDP growth. It isn't working.


EDWARDS: Well, I mean, I don't know that I agree with that, because, you know, first of all -- let me finish here. I mean, first of all, the trillion dollars for stimulus package -- actually $786 billion -- was absolutely necessary to make sure that this economy didn't go into a freefall. We also know that we had to make sure that we began to stimulate the kind of growth that we need in this country to invest in the future.

I -- you know what? I agree with the congressman here. I think there are actually some things that we could do both in terms of cutting back wasteful spending. But everything has to be the table, from the Defense Department, to every single department.

WEST: And I said Defense Department.


EDWARDS: But your party hasn't.


WEST: Well, I am in the party. So, obviously.

EDWARDS: And so, your party hasn't. So I want to go back. I want to make sure that we're really looking at the budget. But we also have to look at revenues. And that is a fact we have to look at revenues in this.

Finally, a quote from Edwards in Politico from January, 2011. In this case, it's impossible to see the context leading up to Edwards' words. The newspaper said Edwards "chose not to balk" at the recommendations made in the Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction report "but said they should be considered as a whole." 

"Here's the thing, you cannot look at savings from Medicare absent looking at the entire budget," Edwards told Politico. "If we are going to consider any kind of overhaul to Medicare, let's look at the whole thing."

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