- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 2, 2000

The House unanimously approved legislation yesterday that would let seniors in the work force receive full Social Security benefits.

"This is an exciting day for me personally and a great day for hundreds of thousands of seniors around the nation," said House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, Texas Republican, before the 422-0 vote.

The "earnings limit" dates from 1939, when Congress hoped to encourage seniors to retire and make room for younger workers, or at least prevent seniors from tapping Social Security while still able to support themselves.

Then, seniors lost all benefits if they worked. Today, more than 800,000 Americans from 65 to 69 lose $1 of their Social Security benefits for every $3 in outside income they earn above $17,000.

"The policy may have made sense in the Great Depression, when jobs were needed … but today's economy needs the age and experience of its older workers," said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr., Florida Republican.

"It just amazed me this was in the law," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, Texas Republican. "This is a malevolent piece of age discrimination."

President Clinton said in a letter yesterday to House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, Illinois Republican, "We should reward every American who wants to and can stay active and productive."

Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, said Congress "still has to do the heavy lifting of passing legislation to strengthen Social Security and Medicare and enacting a prescription-drug benefit for all seniors."

The Republicans hoped to put Democrats on the defensive, saying Democrats have blocked past efforts to pass a repeal of the earnings limit.

Mr. Clinton's decision Feb. 13 to accept the repeal without other reforms to Social Security defused much of that political rhetoric, but Republicans say they still wound up ahead.

Hastert spokesman John Feehery was happily handing out copies of a letter from AARP endorsing the plan.

"It's a huge victory for us," said Mr. Feehery. "For most seniors, this is important. It hits them in the pocketbook."

Republican and Democratic leaders in the Senate back the measure, but Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said Tuesday he wants to retain the right to amend it.

"I ran for the Senate because I wanted the opportunity to be a full-fledged legislator," Mr. Daschle said. "There are other issues that we think are every bit as important as this."

Because of changes made in 1996, the earnings limit is set to increase to $30,000 by 2002.

Those 70 and over already receive full benefits, regardless of their income, and receive a supplemental benefit to make up for benefits forgone because of the earnings limit.

Because of the latter provisions, repealing the limit will cost $8 billion in its first year, but only $22.7 billion over 10 years and will actually be "revenue neutral" over the next 75 years, according to the Social Security Administration.

The bill passed yesterday would not repeal the earnings limit for those who retire before 65. Studies show that repealing the limit for them will actually leave them worse off financially, lawmakers said.

It also leaves intact an earnings limit for those who receive disability benefits under Social Security and taxes on some Social Security benefits.

Despite the bipartisan vote, both sides yesterday still found room to disagree.

"Just two years ago, only 19 Democrats voted to end the Social Security earnings limit," said Rep. Porter J. Goss, Florida Republican. In 1998, Democrats voted en masse against an $80 billion, five-year tax-cut plan that included a provision that would have increased to $39,000 the amount of income a senior could receive before the limit kicked in.

Mr. Rangel called that "revisionist history," saying Democrats voted against the legislation not because they opposed the increase, but because the $80 billion would have depleted surpluses intended for the Social Security trust fund.

Conversely, Democrats said if Republicans really cared about seniors, they would support a Democratic plan to give all Medicare beneficiaries a prescription-drug benefit.

Rep. Mark Foley, Florida Republican, chastised Democrats for trying to score a "political zinger."

"You have just got to drill a little needle in there," Mr. Foley said.

Mr. Shaw later told reporters that yesterday's vote and prescription drugs are "separate issues, but we are moving forward" on a prescription drug benefit for retirees.

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