Social Security reform -- conceived in a wave of optimism following President Bush's 2004 re-election -- crashed last year on the rocks of hyper-partisanship in Washington. While the Democrats' tsunami of obstruction in the Senate swamped even dire warnings of the coming solvency tidal wave, several important lessons emerged from an otherwise dark cloud of defeat.
Doing "something" on the Social Security issue before Congress adjourns could build congressional credibility in this important area of reform. Here's the political problem last year's debate created: Despite the failure of lawmakers to act, conducting the high profile debate in 2005 convinced voters that the system is broken. Now that Americans perceive a problem, inaction further undermines citizen confidence in Congress. Taking an interim step is one way to bridge the gap between the growing reality of a Social Security problem and full-blown legislative action on a plan to fix it.
One possible step -- creating a "lock box" to ensure Social Security surplus funds are not spent on other government programs -- now garners strong support among voters. Parodies on comedy programs like "Saturday Night Live" to the contrary, a large majority of Americans intuitively grasps why creating such a fiscal-control mechanism is an important step in the reform process. They recognize that squandering a surplus can only make the problem worse.
In the latest American Survey (800 registered voters, conducted July 28-Aug. 3), we revisited the concept of walling off Social Security surplus funds into a "lock box." More than eight of 10 voters say they support a proposal such as this to protect "surplus" Social Security funds. More striking, however, is how these numbers do not vary across, age, party or gender lines. For example, even 84 percent of self-identified Democrats support the lock-box approach compared to 86 percent of the Republicans and 88 percent of the independents. Among younger voters (under age 35), 86 percent support the lock-box idea, as do 87 percent of those over age 65. Given these results, Republican lawmakers would be in a strong position to reach out to Democrats to join them in fashioning bipartisan lock-box legislation.
Creating the lock-box concept could be an important interim step for several reasons. First, it is apparent arguments about the looming Social Security solvency problem now resonate with voters. Pew Research in February found 62 percent of Americans believe the Social Security system needs major changes (36 percent) or needs to be completely rebuilt (26 percent). Despite reform setbacks last year, conducting the debate crystallized for voters the looming problem and the need for reform.
Another lesson from last year is that Social Security may need a congressionally initiated solution rather than one driven from the White House -- particularly as Mr. Bush enters his final two years. It's possible of course that the next president could work with Congress to drive some type of compromise, but in the current environment, where Democrats oppose initiatives simply because Mr. Bush proposes them, the odds of successful White House-driven reform appear remote.
In the meantime, some type of congressionally initiated, interim measure that addresses voter concerns about government spending and the looming Social Security crisis may represent an adroit political and substantive move. Even if such an initiative succumbs to a Democratic filibuster, scheduling a vote on such a measure will demonstrate which lawmakers want to protect Social Security for the future and provide shelter from the possible political storm created by congressional inaction in the face of a looming fiscal solvency gale.