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Defending his published characterization of Social Security as a failure of legally questionable origin, Texas Gov. Rick Perry turned the tables on Mitt Romney, saying: "You said if people did it in the private sector it would be called criminal. That's in your book."
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, shot back in the Sept. 12, 2011, Republican presidential debate: "Gov. Perry, you've got to quote me correctly. You said it's criminal. What I said was Congress taking money out of the Social Security trust fund is like (a) criminal (act) and that is and it's wrong."
We wondered if Perry accurately recapped Romney’s description of Social Security.
Let’s start from a fuller excerpt of their debate exchange.
At the debate, Romney challenged Perry’s repeated description of Social Security as a Ponzi scheme. Romney, addressing Perry, said the Ponzi term is "what scared seniors, number one. And number two, suggesting that Social Security should no longer be a federal program and returned to the states and unconstitutional is likewise frightening.
"Look, there are a lot of bright people who agree with you," Romney continued. "And that's your view. I happen to have a different one. I think that Social Security is an essential program that we should change the way we're funding it. You called it a criminal--"
Perry jumped in: "You said if people did it in the private sector it would be called criminal. That's in your book."
We’ve run several looks at Perry’s Social Security descriptions in his 2010 book, Fed Up!, rating False his claim that the government program is a Ponzi scheme. Unlike such a criminal enterprise, Social Security is obligated to pay benefits and participants are aware of how the system operates; it’s public. Unlike a Ponzi scheme, too, Social Security is accountable to Congress and the American people.
More recently, PolitiFact in Washington rated True Romney’s charge in the Sept. 12 debate that Perry called Social Security a "failure" in his book and rated Mostly True Romney’s claim that Perry also called Social Security unconstitutional. Perry’s book lacks such an explicit statement, but Perry argues that the Supreme Court should not have ruled significant pieces of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal constitutional and by doing so, "we’ve been forced to accept (Social Security) for more than 70 years now."
And did Perry accurately recap Romney’s own Social Security moan?
In chapter two of his 2010 book, No Apology: The Case for American Greatness, Romney says reporters did not press the 2008 presidential candidates on how they would shore up or reform Social Security, which could be forced to trim benefits starting in the late 2030s if changes aren’t adopted.
In chapter six, Romney says Social Security has grown exponentially since its inception in the mid-1930s. He adds that the program’s "trust fund" is a fiction. How so? Payroll taxes fund Social Security. Last year, for the first time since 1983, payouts exceeded receipts. So before last year, Social Security ran an annual surplus that was placed into a trust fund that earns interest. But Congress has routinely borrowed Social Security’s surplus to cover other government spending and left behind IOUs from the U.S. Treasury to cover future costs. "There is no fund" in the conventional sense, Romney writes.
Romney’s reference to criminality comes next, in an analogy.
"To put it in a nutshell, the American people have been effectively defrauded out of their Social Security," Romney writes, adding later: "Let’s look at what would happen if someone in the private sector did a similar thing. Suppose two grandparents created a trust fund, appointed a bank as trustee, and instructed the bank to invest the proceeds of the trust fund so as to provide for their grandchildren’s education. Suppose further that the bank used the proceeds for its own purposes, so that when the grandchildren turned 18, there was no money for them to go to college. What would happen to the bankers responsible for misusing the money? They would go to jail. But what has happened to the people responsible for the looming bankruptcy of Social Security? They keep returning to Congress every two years."
For this article, we’re not judging the accuracy or adequacy of this analogy. Instead, to refresh, we’re drilling in on whether Perry accurately aired Romney’s characterization of Social Security.
True, Romney mentions the private sector, as Perry claims.
In the book, Romney then shifts into his analogy about a bank spending money from a trust fund that was set up to cover a future expense -- a grandchild’s college education. The bankers in charge of the trust fund in Romney’s example would face prosecution for, in effect, stealing the trust fund’s money. Romney says their behavior would be called criminal, again as Perry says.
However, as Romney said in the debate, this reference to criminal behavior focuses on the trust fund’s "surplus" not being socked away and kept safe until needed, a diversion he blames on Congress. By our read, it’s not reasonable to interpret the analogy as saying that if the entire Social Security program were in the private sector, it would be called criminal. Perry’s claim echoes some of Romney's language, but ultimately overreaches.
Mitt Romney, book, "No Apology, The Case for American Greatness," pp. 46, 151-53, 157-161, St. Martin’s Press, 2010
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