Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Rarely does a Democratic primary in New York City consist of candidates wildly out of sync on major policy issues. It’s not surprising that campaigns try over the course of a race to put space between their candidate and the rest through nuanced arguments over core issues.
Out in the 6th Congressional race in Queens, Assemblyman Rory Lancman’s campaign is trying to do just that when it comes to Social Security.
The issue was first pointed out by Capital New York’s Azi Paybarah in a post last week. Lancman and one of his opponents, City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley, disagreed on whether taxes should be raised to help fund Social Security at a candidate forum for the Kissena Park Civic Association in Queens. Lancman supports raising the income tax cap on social security, currently set at $106,800, to help keep the safety net program solvent, while Crowley opposes such a hike.
“It's a rare substantive difference between the Democratic candidates, and it's one that affects seniors, who reliably turn up in primary elections in high percentages,” Azi wrote.
The Lancman campaign decided to turn its sites from Crowley, the under-the-radar candidate in the race, to Meng, the party-backed presumptive favorite.
Earlier this week, the Lancman campaign, through its spokesman Eric Walker, sent out an email asking, “Why Is Rory Lancman The Only Candidate in NY-6 That Understands Social Security Is In Crisis?”
“Assemblyman Lancman has highlighted the dire state of Social Security, especially its collapsing window of solvency: currently, the fund will not be able to meet its obligations in 2033 – down from 2037 just last year,” the email said. It was referencing a recent report from the Social Security trustees that, based on current trends, the fund will be exhausted in two decades and will only be able to cover about 75 percent of their obligations through the payroll tax.
The email went on to critique “the lack of a plan put forth by any of the other candidates in the race,” quoting Meng as saying during the Kissena forum, “The funds are not running out tomorrow. In 2033, even if Congress and our government took zero action, that there would still be enough funds in there to pay about three-quarters of the benefits."
This prompted Meng campaign spokesman Austin Finan to tell DNAinfo.com, “"Rory Lancman's repeated distortion of the facts is pathetic and, frankly, disturbing.”
Which led to an email from Walker that began, “The Meng campaign is apparently outraged that its candidate is expected to understand that Social Security is in crisis, and that she has to put forth a plan to save it.”
The issue here really is this: What’s your definition of crisis?
“To me, a crisis is something that is both important and urgent. I’m not sure that we necessarily classify [the projected fund exhaustion date] 2033 as urgent, but this is important and it is coming,” said Marc Goldwein, the senior policy director of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget in Washington, DC, a bipartisan organization focused on federal fiscal policy.
Goldwein said that, in the long term, social security was in “pretty bad shape” that required action “now, or very soon, so those changes actually have time to phase in." He said, ultimately, changes to the benefit formula, the retirement age, and the amount of revenue raised to fund the program, in some combination, will be needed to make social security solvent in the long term.
Paul Van de Water, who served as assistant deputy commissioner for policy at the Social Security Administration from 2001 to 2005 and who spent 18 years in the Congressional Budget Office, had a slightly different take.
“The bottom line is certainly, yes, there’s a financial problem,” said Van de Water, who is now a senior fellow at Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-partisan DC-based fiscal policy think tank. “Is there a crisis? My view would be, no.”
“Crisis would suggest to most people some problem that’s if not immediate then close at hand. And saying something which becomes a critical issue 20 years from now, characterizing that as a crisis is to be more misleading than helpful,” said Van de Water.
This is the backbone of the Meng campaign’s argument.
In another creatively titled email—“Rory Lancman's Honesty Problem”—sent by Meng spokesman Austin Finan, the campaign defended Meng’s position, saying she had “proposed a clear-cut solution that protects taxpayers in the immediate, while keeping Social Security solvent down the road.”
In a statement, Meng said, “We have a serious, structural problem with Social Security…The first step to the solution is to raise the FICA ceiling within the next three years when there is more significant economic improvement, but not now, while the economy is in such a precarious state."
The email also accused Lancman of calling for “an immediate tax hike on Queens residents” for wanting to increase the cap on the social security tax.
Is Meng’s plan enough? Will Lancman plan hurt the economy? These questions may not have concrete answers right now, but Queens Democratic voters do have some issues to ponder heading into the June 26 primary election.