Shining Light on the Debt Commission

I’m not usually a big fan of ambush journalism. But I’m making an exception for Alex Lawson of Social Security Works—who’s been standing outside the weekly closed-door meetings of the president’s debt commission, asking members questions when he can—and Firedoglake, which has been running a live stream of his video.

Lawson is polite, he knows his stuff, and, most importantly, he’s been virtually alone in trying to cover the commission’s proceedings.

The latest installment came on Wednesday. And while there’s a lot of footage of a pair of highly polished wooden doors somewhere in Washington, Lawson also managed to get a fascinating interview with Simpson.

FDL’s Jane Hamsher does a nice job writing up the encounter, and her worries about “the Catfood Commsission” and looming cuts to Social Security. There’s also a transcript of the whole back-and-forth between Lawson and Simpson, if you don’t like that shaky camera stuff.

And be sure to look back at CJR on Monday, when our Trudy Lieberman weighs in on the meat of what Simpson said—and the worrying signals he’s sending.

But for now, I’d like to come back to a point that Trudy made before, about the alarming lack of coverage of the commission. This is a high-powered group, charged with a hugely important task: “identifying policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run.”

Yeah. Important, right? We’ve all got a lot at stake in the commission’s work. And there are early signs that Social Security will be a key issue in the midterm elections.

Well, you wouldn’t guess that from the press coverage of the panel. Make that the lack of press coverage. Sure, there are those fiery interviews with Simpson. That’s what he does best, and that’s why reporters like him. But on the real work going on behind those closed doors? Not much.

Last week, in a weak attempt to cover its proceedings, The Washington Post ran a story that focused on Lawson’s hallway videos:

The mundane scenes have a sinister cast for activists who say the commission is at work on a secret plan to gut Social Security. Nancy Altman, whose group, Social Security Works, shot the footage, says the threat to the nation’s primary social safety net is greater now than at any time in the program’s 75-year history.

“This is going to affect every single American if they reach agreement,” she said. “People need to know what’s going on.”

It’s hard to argue with that. Or with Hamsher, when she says:

In the absence of any transparency coming from the committee about what transpires in its secret meetings, Simpson’s comments to Alex are the best insight we have into what is being discussed there.

Yes, Lawson and his group have a dog in the Social Security fight. In a post this week at New Deal 2.0, Lawson disagreed with Simpson’s recent assertion that defenders of the program “don’t care a whit about their grandchildren.” As he wrote, Simpson’s logic is all wrong:

Social Security’s protections are by far the most important life and disability safeguard available to virtually all the nation’s 75 million children under age 18. Through Social Security, working Americans who are married with two young children, for example, earn life insurance protections with a present value around $400,000 to $500,000 dollars. They earn similar protections for their themselves and their families in the event of a severe disability of severe disability. Today:

• 4.4 million dependent children — about 3.5 million under age 18 and 900,000 adults disabled before age 22 — received Social Security checks in May 2010, totaling $2.4 billion in that month alone!

• Another 3.4 million children who do not receive benefits live in households with one or more relatives who do.

• Social Security lifts 1.3 million children out of poverty.

Lawson and FDL aren’t neutral chroniclers of this debate. But at the moment, there’s not much else to choose from. Well done for the coverage of the commission. Hopefully they’ll get some company soon.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at