President Clinton’s call to “save Social Security” before spending any federal budget surplus elsewhere is proving contagious in an election year - even to some Republicans in Congress.
But the election campaign is also complicating dialogue about solutions to Social Security’s financial problems.
“Any time you talk about Social Security, it’s politics,” said Stuart Rothenberg, an analyst who publishes a political newsletter.
That truism is fresh in the minds of public advocates Clinton has asked to plan four regional forums on Social Security, starting in Kansas City, Mo., on April 7.
The president as well reminded fellow Democrats at the U.S. Capitol last week that there were enough “honest disagreements” with Republicans that “some of this agenda is going to be left for us to take to the American people in November and debate it.”
Martin Corry, director of federal affairs for the American Association for Retired Persons, said the forums “should give everybody some breathing room to discuss these issues without turning this into a partisan spitting match.” AARP is sharing responsibility for the seminars with budget watchdogs at The Concord Coalition.
But politics could get in the way, “if anybody’s clumsy on either side,” Corry said.
In his State of the Union address, Clinton asked Congress not to touch any federal budget surplus - projected to be as much as $660 billion over the next five years - until the country decides how to keep Social Security from being overwhelmed by baby-boomer retirements starting around 2010.
The president told House Democrats at a retreat last week to make that pledge the centerpiece of their bid to regain a majority in Congress this year.
“The political point was to remind voters how strongly the Democrats support the program and maybe to sucker the Republicans a little bit and hope they appear less sympathetic,” said Rothenberg. “But the Republicans are aware of that.”
Although most Republican lawmakers say giving Americans a tax cut is their top priority this year, House Speaker Newt Gingrich last week came out for putting some of the surplus into a “reserve fund for Social Security.”
The Speaker noted - making a point that has since been echoed by other GOP lawmakers - that tax cuts would be possible too, if Clinton would give up $113 billion in new spending proposals for child care, education and other programs.
Republicans have also challenged Clinton administration officials to elaborate on the president’s pledge to “save Social Security first.”
Options being discussed include paying down the national debt, much of which is owed to Social Security’s trust fund; putting the surplus directly toward Social Security’s looming obligations to baby boomers, which by 2029 the system will no longer be able to meet; or using the money to pay benefits to current and near-retirees while younger people try a new system.
Social Security Commissioner Kenneth Apfel in recent public appearances has emphasized Social Security’s successes as a universal social insurance program that protects from poverty not only retirees, but also workers who become disabled and the families of workers who die.
“That floor of protection provides some measure of security should life not turn out as planned,” Apfel says. He has promised audiences young and old that “it will be there when you need it, but there will have to be changes.”
Meanwhile, Gingrich, in a Feb. 5 speech to the AARP, said he envisions moving younger people into a radically new, mandatory private retirement savings program.
The speaker also offered to participate in the upcoming AARP- and Concord-led public forums. And both he and Clinton have asked lawmakers to organize similar meetings in their own districts this year.
Martha Phillips, Concord’s executive director, said partisan differences may be muted because “I think they’re in the dark yet as to what would an informed electorate prefer out of all the objectionable options.”