With the final phrases still echoing in the House chamber from President Bush’s State of the Union address, the mathematics became more important than the rhetoric.
After running for president in 2000 and again in 2004 on his call for Social Security redesign, Bush on Wednesday night added some substance to his proposal, although not enough for congressional Democrats.
“I have a message for every American who is 55 or older: Do not let anyone mislead you; for you, the Social Security system will not change in any way,” Bush declared.
But some things will change if Bush can persuade Congress to agree: Those workers born in 1950 or after would have the option of putting some of the money they now pay in Social Security taxes into voluntary personal accounts. A worker who earns $60,000 a year pays $3,720 a year in Social Security taxes, with his employer paying a matching amount.
If Bush’s redesign becomes law, that worker, once the system is fully phased in, could divert up to about $2,455 a year into a personal retirement account.
For most congressional Democrats, the speech was a storm-the-battlements assault on Franklin Roosevelt, who, by signing Social Security into law in 1935, defined what it means to be a Democrat.
The only thing we have to fear is private accounts, Democrats argued after the speech.
Some Democrats voiced distrust after hearing Bush’s proposals. “Even tonight, he’s saying all ideas are on the table and giving the illusion that they don’t have a concrete plan pretty well together,” said Rep. Earl Pomeroy, D-N.D., who serves on the Ways and Means Committee, which will write the redesign bill.
“We think they probably do have a plan; they just want to sell it in its broad outlines. The devil with this plan is in the details, and they want to hold the details from the public as long as possible,” he said.
Citing ideas offered in the past by Democrats Bill Clinton, John Breaux, Tim Penny and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Bush specifically left the door open to slower growth in future benefits and an increase in the eligibility age for benefits, which is a benefit cut in another form.
Another Ways and Means Democrat, Rep. Rahm Emmanuel, D-Ill., said, “None of the proposals the president had out there dealt with solvency (of Social Security), unless you know something I didn’t hear.”
But newly elected Louisiana Republican Rep. Bobby Jindal praised Bush for offering specifics. “The administration has a lot more work to do to continue educating the American people about the very serious challenges facing Social Security. I think today was a great first step; I think more work needs to be done.”
One pending question: If workers are rerouting some of their Social Security tax payments into personal retirement accounts, how will the system pay for retiree benefits? Jindal said, “We’re not creating one additional dollar of deficit spending by doing this. These transition costs, all they are really doing is recognizing a debt that exists today.”
Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas said the administration would offer in the coming days specific ideas on how to make up the shortfall if money is diverted to private accounts.
“You shouldn’t expect the president in the State of the Union message to pull out his green eyeshade halfway through it and begin to run through numbers and calculations,” Thomas told reporters.
Since the congressional agenda is already full and it would be difficult to pass legislation in 2006, when members of the House must run for re-election, time is working against Bush.
But he has beaten the political odds before and has the great advantage of being consistently underestimated by Washington pundits and sometimes by his Democratic adversaries, too.
Immigration part of the solution?
Although Bush himself did not make the connection on Wednesday, immigration is intimately related to the future prospects of Social Security.
Bush once again touted his guest worker proposal, and even some Democrats on Capitol Hill are thinking aloud that immigration may be one piece of the Social Security (and other entitlements) solution.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., noted Tuesday at a hearing of the Senate Budget Committee, “If there is more immigration, that would actually extend the solvency of Social Security.”
Senate Budget Committee Chairman Judd Gregg, R- N.H., turned to Conrad and said, “You've raised a huge issue, which is whether you can immigrate your way out of Social Security problems.”
One remarkable aspect of Wednesday night’s speech is that, less than four years after Sept. 11, 2001, the threat of Islamic terrorists was a decidedly secondary theme of the night.
The only line that came close to being a ringing call to battle was when Bush seemed to allude to hopes of a democratic uprising in Iran.
“To the Iranian people, I say tonight: As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you,” Bush said.
Question for future discussion: If, as Bush said, “Democracies respect their own people and their neighbors,” and if “the advance of freedom will lead to peace,” and if Iran has a democratic government in the next few years, will that government forswear nuclear weapons? If not, will that threaten the peace?