- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 4, 2005

On Sept. 21, President Bush met with members of his Bipartisan Commission to Strengthen Social Security. While the president is rightly focused on the ongoing crisis along the Gulf Coast, his message to the commission was one of unwavering support for and commitment to getting Social Security reform completed. Like the president, we also feel just as strongly today as we did four years ago, when the commission was first formed, that this critical federal program, now 70 years old, must be strengthened for future generations.

We came away from the White House meeting firmly convinced that the president’s support of reform is steadfast. First, the White House meeting had been planned for several weeks — long before hurricanes struck the Gulf Coast. Given the urgency of these natural disasters, the president could have postponed the meeting. But he chose to keep us on his schedule. Second, he brought to the meeting his closest advisers, including Vice President Dick Cheney, director of the National Economic Council Al Hubbard, Karl Rove, press secretary Scott McClellan and several other senior staff. This clearly indicated to us that Social Security reform remains a central goal during Mr. Bush’s second term.

By naming our commission, comprised of Democrats and Republicans, Mr. Bush wanted to demonstrate that it is possible to get thoughtful people to set aside partisan differences to work on this vitally important issue. He now fully understands that there are even some allies in Congress who might prefer to wait until after the 2006 midterm elections to take up this issue. But the president believes, as we do, that the greater risk is for members running for re-election to not address Social Security reform in any meaningful way. That is because the public is increasingly aware of the need to shore-up the Social Security system — and soon.

Every reputable government agency — from the Government Accountability Office to the Office of Management and Budget to the Congressional Budget Office — has repeatedly warned of the challenges facing Social Security: baby-boom retirees will explode Social Security system costs in just a few short years and by 2017 annual payroll taxes will no longer be sufficient to pay annual benefits. In testimony before Congress, Comptroller General David Walker, one of Social Security’s foremost non-partisan experts, advised members: “Our Social Security challenge is more urgent than it may appear. Failure to take remedial action will… lead to a situation unsustainable for both the federal government and ultimately, the economy.”

Our discussion with the president was lively. He was very interested in the views of the commission members, many of whom live outside the Washington area and were able to provide him with valuable “outside the Beltway” feedback. One message that was relayed to him was the strong voter outrage over the fact that excess Social Security taxes are being spent on other federal programs. Americans, no matter their political affiliation, believe that Social Security contributions are sacrosanct and should be used only for Social Security.

That is why the time for serious dialogue about Social Security’s future is now. Thankfully, the president is committed to strengthening the system for future generations of Americans. He reaffirmed to us his belief that it is his duty and obligation as president to deal with challenges that require strong political leadership. The president firmly stated that he wanted to be the president that signs Social Security reform into law. It is time for the Congress to match his commitment and come to the table.

Tim Penny, a former Democratic congressman from Minnesota, and Leanne Abdnor both served on the president’s Bipartisan Commission to Strengthen Social Security. Both are senior advisers to For Our Grandchildren, a non-partisan Social Security reform and education organization.

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