Young 'Mr. Smith' goes to Washington ... with Social Security in mind

Sen. Larry Craig

Guest opinion

On Oct. 17, 1939, 45 real-life U.S. senators and 250 members of the U.S. House of Representatives gathered at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C., to watch the movie "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

In the film, then 30-year-old actor Jimmy Stewart portrayed "Jefferson Smith," a young Boy Scout type who has been elected to the U.S. Senate. At first, "Mr. Smith" merely holds his seat without saying much, but then he decides to lead an effort to build a national camp for boys - and he finds powerful interests attempting to stop him. He launches into a 24-hour filibuster while his girlfriend coaches him from the gallery about Senate procedure. Senator Smith finally wins the day - truth and justice prevail.

The movie was an immediate hit and second only to "Gone with the Wind" in 1939 box office receipts, but some real-life senators, including then Senate Majority Leader Alben Barkley, D-Ky., denounced it. Despite the protest, the film was nominated for 11 Academy Awards and has since become a movie classic, inspiring countless people to get involved in the political process. (Sen. Barkley's negative reaction did not hurt him politically - he was elected vice president of the United States with President Truman in 1948.)

Recently another Mr. Smith came to Washington to set the world straight - this time it was a real-life Mr. Smith, Brad Smith to be exact, a 20-year old from Knoxville, Tenn., and a junior at Harvard University. Our Mr. Smith testified about Social Security before the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging and his comments were right on the mark. He stated, "If no changes are made in the current system, my generation will only be able to receive somewhere between 75 percent and 66 percent" of currently promised benefits.

Sitting next to 20-year old Mr. Smith and no less compelling on the need for significant action to strengthen Social Security was 69-year old Dr. Thomas Saving, a public trustee of the Social Security and Medicare trust funds, and professor of economics at Texas University. Dr. Saving said that "Social Security's financing future is ominous," adding that, "dramatic action will be required."

Let me be clear: Nothing in current law or in the leading proposals to strengthen Social Security threatens the benefits of current seniors and those near retirement - those benefits will be paid. But, unless something is done to improve current law, demographic changes will force deep cuts in the benefits promised to future generations. To make matters worse, the coming retirement of enormous numbers of the "baby boom" generation will vastly increase demands on our Social Security system much sooner.

Every reasonable and responsible person agrees that we should do something now to strengthen Social Security on behalf of future generations. Yet, there are cynical politicians, supported by the predatory "scare the seniors" lobbying industry, who routinely exploit this fact by attacking candidates for office who propose serious solutions for Social Security's future. To stem their impact, I recently joined a bi-partisan group of about a dozen lawmakers who called on leaders of the Democratic and Republican campaign committees to observe a political "cease-fire" on Social Security.

In signing the letter, we each pledged to defend candidates running for public office - Republican or Democrat - who support, "Social Security modernization and are willing to make the tough choices to address the fiscal challenges facing Social Security."

Brad Smith, our 20-year old real-life Mr. Smith, came to Washington asking us to put aside the politics and work for solutions on behalf of his generation. He deserves no less from us and I hope my colleagues will join in the effort to improve Social Security for the future. Only then can we say Mr. Smith has won the day, and that truth and justice have prevailed - just like in the movies.

Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, is the chairman of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging. The Special Committee on Aging's Web site is http://aging.senate.gov.

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