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During the Sept. 22, 2011, Fox News/Google Republican presidential debate in Orlando, Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney continued to spar over Social Security.
The future of Social Security has turned into a key point of difference between the two candidates. Romney used a new line of attack that Perry wants to send Social Security back to the states, and Perry contended that wasn't true.
Romney clearly stated his claim in an op-ed posted on the Fox News website a few hours before the Orlando debate. He said Perry "agrees with me that Social Security’s financing is in trouble, but from that point forward we sharply diverge. Instead of repairing the program as I aim to do, he wants to dismantle it."
At the Orlando debate, Megyn Kelly of Fox News followed this line of inquiry. "Gov. Romney has been hammering you on your idea of turning Social Security back to the states, repeatedly," she said. "Can you explain specifically how 50 separate Social Security systems are supposed to work?"
Perry answered, "Well, let me just say first, for those people that are on Social Security today, for those people that are approaching Social Security, they don't have anything in the world to worry about. We have made a solemn oath to the people of this country that that Social Security program in place today will be there for them."
He continued, "Now, it's not the first time that Mitt has been wrong on some issues before. And the bottom line is, is we never said that we were going to move this back to the states. What we said was, we ought to have as one of the options the state employees and the state retirees, they being able to go off of the current system, on to one that the states would operate themselves. As a matter of fact, in Massachusetts, his home state, almost 96 percent of the people who are on that program, retirees and state people, are off of the Social Security program. So having that option out there to have the states -- Louisiana does it, almost every state has their state employees and the retirees that are options to go off of Social Security. That makes sense. It's an option that we should have."
Kelly asked Romney if he wanted to respond, and Romney said, "Well, it's different than what the governor put in his book just, what, six months, and what you said in your interviews following the book. So I don't know. There's a Rick Perry out there that is saying -- and almost to quote, it says that the federal government shouldn't be in the pension business, that it's unconstitutional. Unconstitutional and it should be returned to the states. So you better find that Rick Perry and get him to stop saying that."
This is a lot to digest, so for right now, we’ll keep our fact check limited to this question: Is Perry justified in saying, "We never said that we were going to move (Social Security) back to the states"?
What Perry argues in 'Fed Up!'
As we’ve noted in a previous fact-check, Perry’s 2010 book Fed Up! argues that the New Deal was a disastrous policy that expanded the federal government’s reach, curbed individual rights and state prerogatives and set the nation on a path to, as he put it, "socialism."
Perry has praised the decision by employees of Galveston, Matagorda and Brazoria counties in Texas to break away from the Social Security program in 1981, two years before the federal government closed off that option.
Under the plan, participants contribute to retirement accounts, supplemented by an amount from their employers, and those funds are invested in annuities through a financial-services company chosen by a county-run bidding process. (For more details on the Galveston program, you can read a fact check we did here.)
On the Nov. 4, 2010, edition of the CNN show Parker/Spitzer, Perry had a spirited conversation about this option with co-hosts Kathleen Parker and Eliot Spitzer:
Perry: Here's what I think would be a very wise thing. In 1981, Matagorda, Brazoria and Galveston counties all opted out of the Social Security program for their employees. Today their program is very, very well funded and there is no question about whether it's going to be funded in the out years, it's there. That's an option out there.
Spitzer: So you want to let people opt out?
Perry: I think -- you know what? Let the states decide if that's what's best for their system?
Spitzer: So the states will opt out of Social Security?
Perry: They should, I think it's a ...
Spitzer: I haven't seen anybody propose that before because that's ...
Perry: We just laid it on the table, let's talk about it.
Spitzer: And so that's your plan?
Perry: No, it's not my plan, Eliot.
Spitzer: Well, I know, Governor, I'm trying to get you ...
Perry: I know, you're trying to get me in a corner, and I don't corner very good. What I'm trying to do is have a discussion with the people of this country on an issue that ...
Parker: I think that's a brand new idea. Nobody has said that.
Perry: ...nobody, nobody is willing to talk about.
Spitzer: No, no, here is the problem that I have -- the tea party, and we have had everybody from Dick Armey to Richard Viguerie -- folks who have been leading this movement, dodging and dancing unable to give a single answer about what they actually support. Having a conversation is to push it someplace else. I want to know if there's an answer, will you raise the retirement age? Are you saying you want to have private accounts, you can say it, we'll disagree, but at least it's an answer.
Perry: Okay, I think all those are legitimate options out there, but let the states decide. Don't force us from Washington, D.C., to say, here is the size of tube socks that you're going to wear down in Texas, put them on.
The following day, on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Perry mentioned the Texas counties again and said, "I would suggest to you, let's have that conversation. Is that one of the fixes? Get it back to the states. Why is the federal government even in the pension program or the health-care delivery program? Let the states do it. I'll promise you (Gov.) Bobby Jindal over in Louisiana, he'll come up with some great and effective ways and money-saving ways to deliver health care in Louisiana. And governors will look around, they'll go, you know what? That's a good idea. That'll work in our state, and they'll go get it and put it -- put it in their states."
In both interviews, Perry stopped short of officially advocating a let-the-states-decide approach, hedging with such phrases as "let's talk about it" and let’s "have a discussion." Still, he spoke favorably of an option that would loosen the federal monopoly on Social Security and empower states to fill the role of Social Security, even going so far as saying, "Let the states decide."
It’s worth noting that Perry has softened his position in recent weeks, emphasizing the need to protect the program for retirees or people nearing retirement age.
For instance, during the Sept. 12, 2011, CNN/Tea Party Express debate in Tampa, he said, "Slam-dunk guaranteed, that program is going to be there in place for those. Those individuals that are moving towards being on Social Security, that program's going to be there for them when they arrive there." And as we noted, Perry repeated the point in the Orlando debate.
Romney says Perry wants to dismantle Social Security and leave it to the states. Perry says that's not true.
Perry’s not being entirely accurate when he contends that "we never said that we were going to move (Social Security) back to the states." He came close to that position when he said, "Let the states decide" on Parker/Spitzer and "Get it back to the states" on Morning Joe. But in other comments, he hedged, saying it was merely an idea worth discussing.
And while Perry tried, during the Orlando debate, to draw a distinction between a state opt-out system and a mandate that every state have its own Social Security plan, we don’t see it as a major distinction in this context. He claimed to have "never said that we were going to move (Social Security) back to the states," yet allowing every state, or units within a state, to opt out of Social Security empowers states to make their own decisions and ultimately establish their own alternative plans.
Perry brought up the opt-out idea by his own choice on two different television shows. Even if he mostly stopped short of explicitly advocating the let-the-states-decide idea, it’s clear that he was warm to the idea of allowing states to opt out of Social Security. We rate Perry’s statement Mostly False.
Mitt Romney, "The Future of Social Security" (op-ed for Fox News), Sept. 22, 2011
Rick Perry, Fed Up!: Our Fight to Save America from Washington, 2010
Rick Perry, interview on CNN’s Parker/Spitzer, Nov. 4, 2010 (accessed via Nexis)
Rick Perry, interview on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Nov. 5, 2010 (accessed via Nexis)
PolitiFact, "Mitt Romney says Rick Perry believes Social Security is unconstitutional," Sept. 12,
PolitiFact, "Rick Perry says Social Security is a Ponzi scheme," Sept. 12, 2011
PolitiFact, "Herman Cain once again touts Galveston retirement plan at GOP debate," Sept. 12, 2011
PolitiFact, "Mitt Romney says Rick Perry wrote that Social Security is a 'failure,’" Sept. 12, 2011
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