During the vice presidential debate last week, Vice President Joe Biden seemed to significantly overstate his role in the 1983 negotiations over Social Security.
Asked about Medicare reform, the vice president said, “Look, I was there when we did that with Social Security in 1983. I was one of eight people sitting in the room that included Tip O’Neill negotiating with President Reagan. We all got together and everybody said, as long as everybody’s in the deal, everybody’s in the deal, and everybody is making some sacrifice, we can find a way.”
The comment would seem to suggest that Biden was one of the few, key players “in the room” working in a bipartisan way to reform Social Security.
On “Meet the Press” on April 29, 2007, then-Sen. Biden made a similar claim, saying he was “one of five people — I was the junior guy — in the meeting with Bob Dole and George Mitchell when we put Social Security on the right path for 60 years.”
But according to the historical record, Biden was not one of the small group of people in “the room,” or in “the meeting” — nor was he even a key player in reforms.
Those close to the Social Security reform process say that the chief negotiations were made between then-Sens. Bob Dole, R-Kansas, and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, D-N.Y., through the National Commission on Social Security Reform, which worked throughout 1982 on recommendations to help guarantee the solvency of the program, and conducted final negotiations in January 1983. The commission kept President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O’Neill, D-Mass., in the loop throughout the process.
President Reagan signed their work into law in April 1983. There were 15 members of the commission, including Dole, Moynihan, and two other senators; Biden was not one of them. Nor was he at the signing ceremony.
The vice president’s office issued a statement suggesting that the vice president at the debate was not saying he was a key player, merely that he played a role and met with O’Neill, and that the bipartisan nature of the negotiations was crucial.
“In 1983, then-Sen. Biden was one of many senators who weighed in on budget-related issues with the party leadership, including on Social Security reform,” the statement from the vice president’s office said. “In particular, he was part of a group of members who met with Tip O’Neill while the Speaker was negotiating with President Reagan on reform specifics. In those meetings, the Vice President and other members gave their thoughts on the negotiations to the Speaker and Senate Minority Leader Robert Byrd. The consensus of that group was that as long as everyone is in on the deal, and everyone is making sacrifices, they should be able to find a way. O’Neill and Reagan worked it out.”
Biden’s role on the “working group” did not propel him to prominence in the negotiations, at least as far as the historical record.
Dole told ABC News, when asked about the vice president playing any sort of role in Social Security Reform: “Biden’s a good friend of mine, and I’ve been really racking my brain here, but I don’t remember that.”
Alan Greenspan, who declined to comment on the record, wrote about the commission in his book, “The Age of Turbulence,” and didn’t mention Biden’s name at all in his version of events.
Most of the others who were indeed in the room have passed away. George Mitchell was traveling and could not be reached for comment.
Former Social Security Commissioner Robert Ball, who was on the commission, wrote about the importance of other key players in the reforms who were not on the commission, including Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, D-Ill., chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, and Rep. J.J. Pickle, chair of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security. He did not mention Biden.
Moynihan’s personal records about 13 days of meetings surrounding the 1983 reforms — cited during a tribute to Dole and inserted into the Congressional Record — go into great detail about the meetings held in the final days of negotiations.
“Tuesday, January 4, 1983 , 4:30 p.m.: Senators Dole and Moynihan meet with Robert J. Myers re Social Security,” the notes read. “Wednesday, January 5, 2:00 p.m.: Senator Moynihan meets privately with Alan Greenspan, Congressman Conable and Robert J. Myers re Social Security.” And so on. Biden is not mentioned.
In March 1983, a Washington Post editorial heralded the “many heroes in the fight to rescue Social Security,” citing Greenspan, Ball, Moynihan and Dole. Biden is not mentioned.
Biden in his memoir, “Promises to Keep,” makes no mention of this work on Social Security reform, nor is there any mention of it in Jules Witcover’s biography of the vice president. The 2005 biography of Robert Ball, “Robert Ball and the Politics of Social Security,” doesn’t mention Biden even once (as opposed to Dole, Moynihan, Pickle, Heinz, and so on.)
– Jake Tapper