Let GOP Hang Selves

George Bush and his Social Security privatizers are still trying to put pressure on Democrats to sign onto a bill that the White House hasn't even unveiled yet. Democrats should keep up their resistance. Let the House GOP leadership come up with a privatization bill they can bull through the House, preferably with a minimum of Democratic votes. (Rep. Allen Boyd of Florida is the only Congressional Democrat to sign on so far.) House Majority Leader Tom DeLay and Speaker Denny Hastert are fully capable of railroading bills; they do it all the time.

Let the Social Security privatization bill be an unalloyed Republican production. Then let the American public take a good, long look at what Bush and his GOP are really up to.

Senate Finance Chairman Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said the Senate will not begin writing a Social Security overhaul bill until it's clear that pressure for change is bubbling up from the American people. Grassley told the Des Moines Register Bush will have to win over the public. The president went stumping around the country after his Feb. 2, trying to mislead the public into believing that the retirement insurance program faces bankruptcy.

It hasn't worked so far. On his trip through Montana, Bush not only failed to sway Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., one of the Senate's most malleable Democrats; Conrad Burns, the state's Republican senator, also was still reported as undecided, as was the state's only congressman, Denny Rehberg, also a Republican. A poll by the Great Falls Tribune found that Montanans oppose privatization by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.

Grassley, a pragmatist who will oversee the Social Security legislation in the Senate, said the pressure for change is not yet apparent. He reads the polls.

The Wall Street Journal/CNN/Gallup poll released Feb. 18 found that by 51% to 43%, adults under 35 favor private accounts over leaving the Social Security system's current structure intact. Those aged 35 to 49 now split evenly, after slightly favoring Bush's idea in January. Opposition among those age 50 to 64 has swelled to 57% from 49% in January.

Janet Hook of the Los Angeles Times (Feb. 19) noted that people who oppose personal accounts -- mostly the elderly and those nearing retirement -- feel more strongly about the issue than do younger people who might support Bush's position. The Gallup poll found 68% of those who called private accounts a good idea said they might change their minds, but only 39% of those who said it was a bad idea said they might change their minds.

Bush has dropped the rationale that private accounts will help the financial trouble Social Security is supposed to be heading into. And an examination of the best guess as to what Bush is talking about shows that, Bush's promises to the contrary, working-class workers likely would lose under privatization. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has put a calculator at his website (www.schumer.senate.gov) to figure how current promised Social Security benefits stack up against Bush's plan.

We plugged a few figures into Schumer's calculator and found that a 50-year-old person with an average salary of $25,000 would get $13,178 annually from Social Security upon retirement but would expect $782 less under Bush's plan. A 30-year-old person with an average salary of $25,000 would get $15,626 under the current plan but would get $4,115 less under Bush's plan.

A 50-year-old worker earning $42,000, which is close to the mean household income in the US, would get $18,986 under the current plan but would get $1,125 less under Bush's plan. Our hypothetical 30-year-old who earns an average of $42,000 would get $22,514 under the current plan, and $5,929 less under Bush's plan.

A USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll released Feb. 8 showed that two-thirds of respondents called for an increase in the limit on taxable income from the current level of $90,000 if Social Security needs to be fixed. More than 2 to 1 opposed reducing retirement benefits for those now under age 55. But when Bush alluded to the possibility of increasing the taxable income, DeLay and Hastert shot down that attempt at moderation.

Right-wing lobbyists also attacked the move to compromise. "It's exactly the wrong way to go," said Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union, according to the Los Angeles Times. "If you're looking to rally the American people around a reform plan, you don't lead off with a tax increase or benefit cuts. Those are both political losers."

Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo.com has been monitoring Republican efforts to put some distance between "privatization," which the public clearly does not support, and Wall Street's goal of getting a slice of the huge Social Security pie.

He noted that Rep. Heather Wilson, R-N.M., said in 1998 she would support stock market investments for Social Security, but in 2004 ruled it out. Then recently she said she would not support allowing the "government" to invest Social Security funds in the markets, but would not answer whether "individuals" should be able do so, telling an Albuquerque Journal reporter she would not deal with "hypothetical situations."

Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz., had to pacify a hostile crowd in Tucson that peppered Kolbe and Social Security Deputy Commissioner James Lockhart with questions about private accounts. Although a local TV station reported the crowd was "divided," a Marshall correspondent estimated the division was roughly 9 to 1 against privatization. The correspondent added that the two things that generated the greatest positive response were 1) moving the cap on payroll taxes up and 2) repealing Bush's tax cuts.

Rep. Shelly Moore Capito, R-W.V., is not getting ahead of her politically competitive district. She plans several town hall meetings but is noncommittal about Bush's proposal. "I will describe the problem, but I'm not going to be advocating for any particular solution," she said. "If I go to all these town meetings and it's a stampede against reform, I'll have to factor that into my thinking."

While Democrats are striving for unity, Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., reportedly is undecided about using payroll taxes to fund private Social Security accounts, Congress Daily reported Feb. 18. Lieberman is "still in the listening and learning stage and is keeping an open mind," a Lieberman aide was quoted as saying.

Marshall writes that Lieberman, as a high-profile Democrat wavering on the phase-out of guaranteed benefits, may be doing irreparable damage in giving cover to Republicans who are hesitant to come out for privatization.

Democrats don't owe Bush any explanations, nor are they obligated to come up with a plan of their own to save a Social Security system that won't even need saving under normal growth projections. Remember that Social Security only starts drawing on its trust funds in 2018, as the scaremongers proclaim, if growth rates are lower than historic averages. And the much-ballyhooed 75-year forecast of Social Security bankruptcy by the doomsayers is of no practical use, coming from an administration whose economic projections so far have turned out wildly off the mark.

Marshall's tally of the "Fainthearted Faction" of Democrats most likely to flake includes Sens. Tom Carper (Del.), Kent Conrad (N.D.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Lieberman and Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Reps. Boyd (Fla.), Robert "Bud" Cramer (Ala.), Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), Ike Skelton (Mo.) and John Tanner (D-Tenn.) If they represent you, give them a call to tell them to buck up. -- JMC

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