That infamous Social Security "lock box" is back, and now the question is whether Republicans or Democrats will get caught inside the damn thing. Pure, pre-9/11 partisan politics dogged Tuesday's meeting of the President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security, a bipartisan panel of 16 experts tasked with studying the possibility of privatizing a paltry 2 percent of grandma's favorite federal program. The commission's final report--approved by all 16 members--offers three plans for Congress to consider, and all include partial privatization as a key element. In the coming days, you can be sure that the Democrats will hammer the proposals. But a foul political stench is already emanating from a box that contains more problems than cash.
As usual, the issue comes down to money. The commission's various fixes would cost somewhere between $2 trillion and $3 trillion. Why? At its inception in 1935, 42 workers contributed for every one person drawing cash. Now the ratio is 3.4 to 1 and falling fast. Worse, stubborn old fogeys of the sort who used to die soon after retiring now cash checks for 40 years. Yet if everyone takes 2 percent of what they contribute and puts it in mutual funds, that's 2 percent in contributions that the system must find elsewhere to pay current retirees. Where will the "transition" money to cover that difference come from? Higher taxes? Lower benefits? Other federal programs? The commission's report doesn't say. Instead, it urges Congress to consider its options for a year before deciding such things.
At a press conference after the commission meeting, anti-privatization forces associated with an organization called the Institute for America's Future said the one-year delay was all about politics. Rep. Robert Matsui (D-Calif.) from the House Social Security Subcommittee was featured prominently. "I don't think there is any question that the reason that there is a delay at this time is a political reason," he said. "I am sure that the Republican leadership in the House, and perhaps the Senate, went to the president and suggested that they delay this beyond the 2002 election." Matsui and friends think that people hate the idea of private accounts, and that Republicans will lose the House if the commission's plan sees the light of day.
At their own press conference after the meeting, commission members vehemently denied any such tactics. Co-chairs Richard D. Parsons and former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) said that they offered to delay the report in light of September 11, but President Bush instructed them to carry on. Parsons claimed that rather than shrinking from the issue, Bush told him he would feature it in his January State of the Union address.
Matsui promises to take it to Bush anyway. "He can come to us in a bipartisan fashion in good faith and try to work this out over the next number of months, or else he can make this a 2002 election issue."
But the plan's opponents may find that they too have a weakness: For all their complaints about the plan, they've yet to develop an alternative.
Democrats plan to blast Republicans on the grounds that privatization would require more money now and reduce benefits in the future. I asked the assembled anti-reformers if they were aware of any plan that could overcome the stark reality of demographics without doing one, the other, or both. All I got was some guy from Brookings saying we wouldn't have to worry if Bush hadn't signed this summer's tax cuts. Matsui had no response. A little later, a reporter asked the same question more bluntly: Where's your plan? The fact of the matter is, Matsui doesn't have one, and he admits it. Rather than apologizing, however, he derided the question as "ludicrous."
But it's not ludicrous. There are only two solutions: Add more money or reduce benefits. The commission thinks it can increase revenue through private accounts. That leaves Matsui with . . .well, he won't say. Instead, he cites his long years working on the issue. He was on the subcommittee way back in 1983, the last time the system got an overhaul. "We were able to come up with a bipartisan solution for Social Security, and that's what it's going to take this time," he said. That solution, it's worth noting, included higher payroll taxes and delaying benefits.
Indeed, Bush and Co. could point out that Matsui's last "solution" resulted in the unsustainable system everyone is trying to fix today. One tactic available to the GOP is to force Matsui to him embrace his only option--more money for the program--and make him say where he would get it. Behind the scenes, the capital's reform operatives fear that congressional Republicans will try to sweep the issue under the rug, but it looks like neither Bush nor Matsui are going to let that happen.