WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The co-chairman of a commission on the U.S. budget deficit came under fire on Wednesday after an off-color remark that likened the payment of government retirement benefits to milking cows.
Women’s groups and some lawmakers called for the resignation of Alan Simpson, a Republican who serves on the bipartisan deficit panel created by President Barack Obama.
Simpson wrote this week in an email to one of his critics the Social Security retirement program has reached the point “where it’s like a milk cow with 310 million tits.”
He later issued an apology for the comment.
Senator Bernie Sanders, an independent, and Representative Peter DeFazio, a Democrat, said the comments were “beyond comprehension” and demeaned older Americans and disabled people who receive Social Security benefits. They wrote to Obama to ask that Simpson be removed from the commission.
The National Organization for Women said Simpson was “not fit to lead” the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform.
The former senator from Wyoming made the comment about milking cows in an e-mail this week to Ashley Carson, executive director of the Older Women’s League, which identifies itself as representing the interests of middle-aged and older women.
Simpson’s e-mail took issue with a column Carson wrote in April accusing him of “ageism and sexism” for considering cuts to Social Security.
“If you have some better suggestions about how to stabilize Social Security instead of just babbling into the vapors, let me know,” wrote Simpson, 78, adding, “Call me when you get honest work.”
Simpson, known for his biting sense of humor, wrote an apology letter to Carson, saying he had put his foot in his mouth and adding “when I make a mistake, it’s a doozy.”
“I apologize for what I wrote,” he said.
OWL has said Simpson should resign from the panel, and if he will not, that Obama should ask him to leave.
Simpson serves alongside Erskine Bowles, a Democrat and former White House chief of staff, and 16 other panelists.
A White House official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said of the Simpson controversy, “He has apologized and while we regret and do not condone his comments, we accept his apology and he will continue to serve.”
AARP, which represents older Americans, said the remarks called into question Simpson’s ability to consider important fiscal matters such as the future of Social Security.
“Sen. Simpson’s remarks not only cross the line of good judgment, but they undermine the serious work of the commission and give us little confidence the commission can fairly look at important programs such as Social Security,” the group said in a statement.
The deficit commission is considering recommending cuts to benefits and raising the retirement age as a way to shore up the finances of the 75-year-old Social Security program.
The 18-member panel is looking at other spending cuts as well as trimming a long list of tax breaks in its effort to find ways to rein in the $1.4 trillion budget deficit.
Advocacy groups for the elderly fear the commission, which is to report its recommendations to Obama in December, will only reach agreement on cutting Social Security.
Carson said OWL opposes raising the retirement age or benefit cuts. She said Social Security’s finances can be shored up by raising the cap on the amount of income that is now subject to the Social Security payroll tax. Currently, the first $106,800 of income is taxed at a 12.4 percent rate, and that amount is equally shared by employee and employer.
Writing by Caren Bohan; additional reporting by Richard Cowan; editing by Xavier Briand and Todd Eastham