A Washington Whodunit: Who Killed Chained CPI?

"The explanation that the tea party was the reason, that's the wrong narrative," said a frustrated Rep. Raul Grijalva, the co-chairman of House Progressive Caucus and an Arizona Democrat. "The explanation that the tea party was the reason, that's the wrong narrative," said a frustrated Rep. Raul Grijalva, the co-chairman of House Progressive Caucus and an Arizona Democrat. Carolyn Kaster/AP file photo

It's not every day that liberals jockey to take credit for killing something proposed by a Democratic president, but today, progressives are trying to turn familiar accusations about tea-party legislative homicide against themselves. We, the Left insists, not the conservatives, are the real executioner of a wonky yet controversial change to Social Security that the White House is keeping out of its budget proposal.

"The explanation that the tea party was the reason, that's the wrong narrative," said a frustrated Rep. Raul Grijalva, the co-chairman of House Progressive Caucus and an Arizona Democrat, of the demise of chained CPI, a proposed change to the way inflation is calculated that would reduce benefits to seniors over time.

President Obama first proposed use of the chained consumer price index in 2011 as part of a "grand bargain," and then included the plan in the budget he released last year, enraging liberal Democrats on and off Capitol Hill.

"Sorry, but liberals had nothing to do with the president's decision. It's Republicans who killed the Social Security proposal," wrote The Washington Post's Zachary Goldfarb in a blog post that captured this view.

White House press secretary Jay Carney cemented this emerging narrative last week when he said the president would still accept chained CPI if Republicans would hold up their end of the grand bargain. "What remains absolutely the case is that the president is ready and willing to negotiate a balanced deficit-reduction deal," he said, "if Republicans are willing to meet him halfway."

That simply won't fly for Grijalva. "For us, it's huge," he said in an interview late last week. "There's a history involved, and I wish the coverage would reflect that history. And if it had done that, there would not be this question of credit where credit is due."

That history involves a letter from 117 House members—more than half the Democratic Caucus—opposing chained CPI; opposition from numerous Senate Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.,; and aggressive organizing against the White House from outside progressive groups going back several years.

"As usual, the White House eventually answered the question correctly, but got the premise wrong," said Democracy for America's Neil Sroka, who helped deliver tens of thousands of signatures against chained CPI to Obama's 2012 campaign office. "We're not stupid. We had a pretty good idea that there was a good shot the tea party would not go along with this.… But I think that it's just silly to make the argument that the White House made last week."

The argument goes like this: If chained CPI is still on the table, and budget proposals, since they're never actually enacted, are essentially abstract statements of moral principle, why bother removing it? "This year their morality changed?" Sroka said. "The truth is that the politics have changed."

Richard Eskow, a senior fellow at the Campaign for America's Future, took to The Huffington Post to insist that, as his headline read, "Yes, the Left Killed the Chained CPI." If the decision not to include it this year "isn't policy-based, it must be political. And if it was a political decision, who but the Left could have been providing the political pressure?" he writes.

This brings in the figure that pulled the proverbial trigger: The White House itself. A former senior Obama adviser, who asked that his name not be used so he could speak candidly, agrees that the White House was responding to the Left's message, but only because the calculus changed once a grand bargain was no longer in the cards.

"I think the reality is that it wasn't included because there was absolutely no indication that there was a willingness to embrace a balanced package that included investments and included some progressive elements," the former aide said. "So from a political standpoint, what's the point of inflaming your base when there's no possibility of gain in terms of legislation?"

Still, he places the "lion's share" of the blame on Republicans for retreating from their big talk on entitlement reform once they realized it would have a political cost among their own base, which includes many elderly voters, joking that this whodunit could be called the "Texas Chained-CPI Massacre."

And Obama was right to propose the change, the former adviser said, "because there's something between elections called governing. And every once in a while, it behooves people in office to participate in that."

So who killed chained CPI? The Left? Republicans? Obama? It seems it was an unwitting conspiracy of all three. But while it's now pretty clear that a grand bargain was doomed from the start, the Left did seem to succeed in putting enough pressure on the White House that it felt compelled to formally dispatch the Social Security fix when the time came.

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