President Bush is not making much headway in selling his Social Security ideas to the American public. So last week, he tried a new approach.
"Personal accounts do not solve the issue," Bush said at his March 16 news conference. "They make the solution more attractive for the individual worker." It's a separation strategy: Separate the issue of personal investment accounts from the issue of the solvency of the Social Security system.
Democrats have been arguing for some time that personal accounts would not save Social Security. Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said last month, "There's no correlation between 'fixing Social Security' and private accounts....The private accounts only make Social Security solvency more difficult, not easier."
The Democratic National Committee greeted Bush's separation strategy with glee. "Personal Accounts Is Not the Permanent Fix," shouted the headline of a Democratic National Committee press release. "This is the first time the president has conceded that fact. We couldn't agree more."
Democrats hope this means that the notion of personal accounts will go away. But Bush has a different idea. He was asked at the news conference, "Would you be willing to drop personal accounts in order to get a bill?" He responded, "Personal accounts are very important for the individuals." And he added, "The [poll] I read the other day said people like the idea of personal accounts."
Bush was referring to a mid-March Washington Post-ABC News poll that asked about "a plan in which people who chose to could invest some of their Social Security contributions in the stock market." Respondents supported it, 56 percent to 41 percent. But a February Gallup Poll asked people how they felt about personal accounts if the accounts reduced guaranteed Social Security benefits. Respondents were opposed, 60 percent to 36 percent.
That's why Bush is separating the two ideas. What does he propose to do to keep the system solvent? Bush claims he is being bold: "I think I'm the first president ever to say, 'All options are on the table,' and name a series of options." When did he do that? "If you've got some time on your hands," he told the press, "you might want to go read previous State of the Union addresses and see if that's true."
In this year's State of the Union, Bush said, "Fixing Social Security permanently will require an open, candid review of the options.... Some have suggested limiting benefits for wealthy retirees ... indexing benefits to prices rather than wages ... increasing the retirement age ... discouraging early collection of Social Security benefits ... changing the way benefits are calculated. All these ideas are on the table."
Each of those fixes is painful and controversial. Is the president choosing an option? Not exactly. "I stood up in front of the Congress and said, 'Bring your ideas forward,' " Bush said at his news conference. "It's how the process works."
Actually, the process usually starts with the president's putting his ideas forward. But when it comes to fixing Social Security, Bush is saying to Congress, "You go first."
The president has acquired an important ally in his campaign for personal accounts, Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan. Testifying before a Senate panel this month, Greenspan warned, "Because benefit cuts will almost surely be at least part of the resolution" of the Social Security problem, government should "convey to future retirees that the real resources currently promised to be available on retirement will not be fully forthcoming."
Greenspan endorses the idea of personal retirement accounts, which would further reduce the Social Security resources available. He is supposed to be a deficit hawk. What's going on here?
Remember all the talk during the 2000 presidential campaign about a Social Security "lockbox"? There isn't one. Bush acknowledged that at his news conference when he said, "A lot of people in America think there is a trust: Your money goes in, the government holds it, and then the government gives your money back when you retire." He continued, "That's just not the way it works. And it's important for the American citizens to understand it's a pay-as-you-go system." Current payroll revenues pay for current benefits. And if there is money left over, as there is right now, the government spends it on something else.
Greenspan said that taking payroll taxes out of the government's hands and allowing people to invest the money would create a system of lockboxes. As he put it, "We need, in effect, to make the phantom 'lockboxes' around the trust fund real." If you want Social Security revenues to be saved rather than spent, he argued, "private accounts have a higher probability of achieving that end."
For Greenspan, personal accounts are desirable precisely because they would starve the Social Security system of funds and force benefit cuts, thereby reducing the deficit. But retirees will be safe, Bush maintains, because "personal accounts will make sure that individual workers get a better deal with whatever emerges as a Social Security solution."
So the idea is for Congress to propose a plan to save Social Security by making it more expensive and less generous. Bush will propose a plan for personal accounts that will help protect retirees. Meanwhile, the Fed chairman argues that taking resources out of the Social Security system will reduce the deficit.
That's how separation works.