James Clyburn (D-SC), a member of the Catfood Commission II, rejected increasing the Social Security retirement age yesterday, calling it an idea devised by “people who work in air conditioned offices” and unnecessarily punitive to laborers.

This is a reversal for Clyburn. Last year he joined Steny Hoyer in floating an increase in the retirement age as a possibility. But asked the question in a tele-town hall last night, he said of a retirement age increase, “I’ve got a real problem with that.”

Clyburn asked, “Those working in coal mines, why should they have same retirement age as those of us who work in air conditioned offices?” Pressed for other solutions to deal with Social Security’s long-term balance, Clyburn brought up the payroll tax cap. “If you make $100,000 a year, you’re being taxed on 100% of your income. If you make $200,000 a year, you’re only being taxed on 50%. So that’s a way to go, increasing or lifting the cap. Raising the retirement age, I don’t think is shared sacrifice.”

Clyburn did not bring up raising the Medicare eligibility age, though he may have similar concerns.

In other respects, Clyburn’s discussion of the deficit and his role on the Catfood Commission II mirrored House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s views on the subject, with one exception. Clyburn said that four factors from the Bush Administration accounted for the deficit: the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the unpaid-for Medicare prescription drug benefit, and the Bush tax cuts (in reality, Medicare Part D accounts for a substantially smaller portion of the deficit than the other three, and if Medicare were allowed to bargain for prescription drugs, something Democrats could have added to the health care law as a cost-saving measure, that deficit burden would be far smaller). Then, the recession created the rest of the deficit due to automatic stabilizers. He highlighted not two, but three ways to reduce the deficit: budget cuts, raising revenue and job creation.

“We can’t have a sustainable effort to close the deficit unless we get people back to work so they can earn incomes and pay taxes,” Clyburn said. And he went on to discuss tax breaks that are “unfairly tilted toward the wealthy” and programs for low-income people like SNAP that have “a history that should not be ignored.”

However, Clyburn did seem fearful of the trigger scenario, particularly the cuts to the defense budget that would ensue. He preferred to “use a scalpel” with the defense budget than the automatic, across the board cuts that would come from the trigger. “As someone who lives in the shadow of Ft. Jackson, born and raised in Sumter, site of the Third Army, I am interested in getting something done to avoid drastic cuts” to the defense budget, he said. In reality, the cuts to defense are in line with Bowles-Simpson and less than the Frank-Paul report, which showed that the military could handle twice as many cuts as in the trigger with no effect on military readiness.

So there ought to be a concern that Clyburn, artificially constrained by the threat of defense cuts, will go along with some plan that makes real holes in the social safety net. Of course, he could also opt to undermine the trigger cuts in the ensuing year between enactment and implementation.