- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 8, 2005

Treasury Secretary John W. Snow yesterday vowed to “take the case” for Social Security reform “to the American people,” even as congressional Republicans wait for a specific legislative proposal from the Bush administration.

“We won’t get good success … in the Congress until the issue is well understood abroad in the land,” Mr. Snow told reporters, citing town hall meetings, presidential speeches and travel by administration officials in the coming weeks.

As the White House begins a major public relations campaign to sell its Social Security reform ideas to the public, many congressional Republicans are in a wait-and-see mode — looking to the administration for a specific legislative proposal from which to start.

Republicans are “running on the assumption” that the White House will give them a detailed proposal, said Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican and sponsor of his own reform bill.

“I’d like to see exactly what the president does have,” agreed Rep. Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican who likes Mr. Ryan’s proposal but also wants to see a detailed plan from the administration.

Mr. Ryan — who speaks regularly with White House officials about the issue — said the White House press effort is perfectly appropriate, however, and frankly, very necessary. He said much public education is needed to spur the congressional effort as well as to counter critics of reform, who have already launched a campaign of their own.

“It’s a good thing,” Mr. Ryan said of the administration’s outreach effort.

The main idea of Mr. Bush and many of his Republican allies is to let workers divert some of their payroll taxes from the Social Security system into personal investment accounts. The idea is that these accounts will give participants a much better rate of return on their investment than Social Security does, while shielding them from major risk.

Democratic leaders and their political allies, including labor unions and the AARP, already have begun their offensive against the president’s proposal. The AARP ran a series of newspaper ads, including one in The Washington Times, attacking the president’s private investment plan as too risky.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, pieces are slowly beginning to fall into place for congressional action this year. This week, Rep. Jim McCrery, Louisiana Republican, was named to head the House Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee. He and House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas, California Republican, will take the lead in crafting and moving legislation in the House. In the Senate, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, will take the lead.

This is the same group of leaders that waged a tough battle to force Medicare prescription drug legislation through Congress for Mr. Bush last session.

Critics of the Social Security effort say Republicans are exaggerating the need for reform.

“Social Security is solvent for the next 42 years,” said Rep. James P. Moran, Virginia Democrat. He said Republicans are urging Congress to move fast to reform the system simply because “they may not be in charge in four years,” and if they wait until next year to act, the politics of the midterm elections will lessen their chances of passing legislation.

“It’s a political urgency rather than a financial urgency,” he said.

Mr. Moran said a possible compromise to the private accounts is to take some Social Security money and put it aside in a high-rate index fund to make extra money.

But Republicans say they aren’t exaggerating at all and Congress must fix the system now or face dire straits in years to come.

“The more you delay, the uglier the solutions become,” Mr. Ryan said.

Republicans note the ratio of workers paying into Social Security is shrinking and will get dramatically worse as baby boomers start to retire. By 2018 it’s expected that Social Security will be handing out more money to pay benefits than it will be taking in.

Even among Republicans, however, there is disagreement over how best to change the system. And the more consensus-based Senate is sure to be a challenge as well.

“Most Republicans haven’t made up their minds yet as to what reform they want,” Mr. Ryan said. “A lot haven’t studied the issue yet.”

• This story is based in part on wire service reports.

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