President George W. Bush is once again targeting Social Security. But rather than the full-frontal assault he waged against the retirement system shortly after being sworn in for his second term in 2005, he appears to be planning an end run.
The president has been beating the drum on what he is calling "entitlement spending," which he is using as a code phrase for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
"We need to cut entitlement spending," the Washington Post reported him saying in August. "The easy fix is to say 'Let somebody else deal with it.' This administration is going to continue trying to work with Congress to deal with these issues."
Bush's way of dealing with Social Security? Privatization. The Bush plan would allow workers to shift a significant portion of their annual Social Security contributions into private accounts that could be used to invest in mutual funds. The president claims the accounts would give workers more control over their retirement money and a better return on their investments, but his plan really would do nothing more than phase out the current system and leave us all at the mercy of an increasingly volatile market.
Bush tabled the plan for political reasons in 2005, but he remains a true believer in private accounts and has signaled that he is ready to make a final effort to begin phasing out one of the more successful government programs in the nation's history.
He made a down payment on the phase-out in his fiscal-year 2007 budget, which set aside more than $700 billion to fund private accounts over the next 10 years. And he has enlisted members of his administration and GOP Congressional leaders to push the privatization cause.
House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Jim McCrery (R-La.) says revamping Social Security should be high on the agenda in 2007, while House Republican Majority Leader John Boehner has promised "to get serious about this" -- provided he's "around in a leadership role come January."
Joshua Micah Marshall, the longtime political journalist who runs the TalkingPointsMemo.com Web site, wrote in July that the future of Social Security is one of the most important issues that will face the two houses of Congress next year and that it is "nothing short of amazing how many candidates there are out there this election season who refuse to give a straight answer on whether they support preserving Social Security or phasing it out and replacing it with private accounts."
That's why it is important to understand where the candidates stand on Social Security.
Tom Kean Jr., for instance, the state senator who is running as a Republican for US Senate in New Jersey, has offered a convoluted stance designed both to distance himself from the president while also not angering his Republican base. He is for "the promise of Social Security for current recipients and those nearing retirement age," but not for Social Security itself, and the only mention he makes on his Web site about the rest of us is to say that "changes will be required to keep the program solvent for future generations" -- language similar to that used by the president in selling his private accounts.
Kean, however, did vote against a state Senate resolution in 2005 that called for Congress to reject the Bush privatization plan. And, during an earlier run for Congress, he made statements in support of private accounts.
Kean's approach -- he is most likely what Marshall calls a "shadow privatizer" -- is similar to that taken by most of his Republican colleagues, which is to take no position at all, allowing voters to believe it's no longer a priority and thereby avoiding what has been referred to in the past as the third rail of American politics.
A Republican majority, as a report written by Roger Hickey and Jeff Cruz for the Campaign for America's Future and released in August points out, could result in a successful "vote to dismantle our traditional Social Security system."
And that's what makes the 2006 mid-term elections so important, the report says.
"With the president and Republican leadership vowing to bring back privatization, should the elections see privatization advocates gain seats, it would set the stage for a fierce legislative battle in 2007," it says. "On the other hand, should several privatization ideologues be defeated, it could drive the stake in the heart of privatization efforts."
Groups working to prevent privatization include:
Americans United For Change, 1825 K Street, NW, Suite 206, Washington, D.C. 20006; phone, 202-263-4577; Web americansunitedforchange.org
Americans United to Save Social Security, 1025 Connecticut Ave., NW Suite 705, Washington, D.C. 20036; phone, 202-955-1002; Web www.americansforsocialsecurity.com; email, firstname.lastname@example.org
Campaign for America's Future, 1025 Connecticut Avenue, NW, Suite 205, Washington, D.C. 20036; phone, 202-955-5665; Web www.ourfuture.org
Hank Kalet is a poet and managing editor of the South Brunswick Post and the Cranbury Press in New Jersey. Email email@example.com. His blog, Channel Surfing, can be found at www.kaletblog.com.
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