How Social Security can be reformed today

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TEXT OF INTERVIEW

STEVE CHIOTAKIS: President Obama's federal budget proposal doesn't include any cuts to Social Security. Despite his own bipartisan commission recommendation. A lot of people in Washington say real budget solutions have to start with shoring up Social Security. Something Republicans and Deomcrats came together for in 1983. That's when President Ronald Reagan and House Speaker Tip O'Neill helped save the program from going broke.

Julian Zelizer is a presidential historian at Princeton University. He's with us now to talk about that moment in history. Good morning.

JULIAN ZELIZER: Good morning.

Chiotakis: Talk about what happened in that Social Security deal from the early 1980s, between President Reagan and Speaker Tip O'Neill.

ZELIZER: The 1983 reforms were very important and very dramatic. Congress made the decision to solve a short-term imbalance in the program, where we didn't have enough money coming in compared to what we were spending. Benefits were cut, taxes were raised, and Republicans and Democrats entered into a bipartisan agreement that fixed the program and got it on sound footing.

CHIOTAKIS: Well it didn't quite fix it, because here we are nearly 30 years later and we're talking about many of the same things that we were talking about then, right?

ZELIZER: That's absolutely true. The 1983 reform was about a short-term problem. Literally the program was about to run out of money and that crisis, which was more immediate still than the one we face today, placed a lot of pressure not just on Democrats and Republicans, but moderates in both parties, to come out and take rather courageous stands at the time to find a solution.

CHIOTAKIS: What can we learn from that today, then?

ZELIZER: I think the first is that reform is possible. The fact is, Social Security was reformed in 1983, it was reformed in 1977, and it was also reformed many times before that since its creation in 1935. It's very important that there's going to be leaders, meaning members of Congress and the White House who are willing to do what their party doesn't want them to do.

CHIOTAKIS: And can something like that happen today? You say it takes leadership and courage -- do you see leaders and courageous people out there?

ZELIZER: Sometimes history takes you by surprise. You don't see the leaders today, you don't see the bipartisanship. But this program is enormously popular, and one thing that Republicans and Democrats understand is that there will be payback for both parties if the system breaks. And so I think that pressure can counteract the polarization we see in Washington.

CHIOTAKIS:Presidential historian Julian Zelizer from Princeton University. Julian, thanks.

ZELIZER: Thank you.

About the author

Steve Chiotakis was the host of Marketplace Morning Report until January 2012.

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