- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 21, 2002

House Republican leaders plan to pass a bill next month to guarantee full Social Security retirement benefits to all workers, a move designed to block Democrats from playing on voters' fears about the program's long-term viability.

The bill would require the government to issue certificates promising that Social Security benefits will not be cut to anyone who reaches retirement age. Republican leaders also plan to pass a bill to improve benefits for women who have left their jobs to raise children.

"Many older people are scared of Social Security reform because they may believe that steps taken to secure benefits for tomorrow's retirees are going to mean cuts in benefits for today's retirees," said Andrew Biggs, a Social Security analyst at the Cato Institute.

The GOP's strategy has triggered behind-the-scenes controversy within their party.

The White House does not support the idea because President Bush's advisers fear it would undermine his proposal to establish private Social Security retirement accounts. Conservative reformers say the idea could interfere with needed reforms and spark future lawsuits. And a congressional study said yesterday that such a guarantee is worthless.

"It's an effort to make sure that people understand that Republicans care about Social Security and that we're going to fight to preserve Social Security. We're also trying to make sure that any scare campaign by the Democrats fails," said John Feehery, chief spokesman for House Speaker Dennis Hastert.

"The Democrats are going to make it an issue, and we can't be scared of this issue," Mr. Feehery said.

Mr. Biggs, who was a staffer on Mr. Bush's Social Security reform commission, said he is personally torn over the strategy.

"On the one hand, it makes sense to assure retirees that their benefits will not be cut because under most reform plans they won't be cut. At the same time, these guarantee bills pretend to give a worker a guarantee that the current program simply can't provide," said Mr. Biggs.

Future congressional action could "amend or repeal" such a guarantee, the Congressional Research Service concluded yesterday in a study for the House Ways and Means Committee's subcommittee on Social Security.

Administration officials said that Mr. Bush wants private investment accounts to ensure benefits, not a paper guarantee from Congress that could be overridden in the future.

But in a strategy memorandum circulated last week, House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas said that the guarantee bill was needed to block Democratic attacks while Republicans "begin making the case forcefully and without fear or apology for wide-ranging reform of the system."

Democrats have effectively exploited public fears of losing Social Security benefits especially among the elderly to defeat Republicans in past congressional elections, including 1982 and 1986.

They used the issue aggressively last year in two special House elections in Virginia and Arkansas, though the GOP's candidates won anyway.

Still, despite a volatile stock market and the Enron scandal that wiped out the 401(k) stock values of its employees, Social Security retirement accounts that let workers invest in stocks and bonds remain popular. A Roper poll last month found that Americans favor the idea by 63 percent to 33 percent, almost identical to the results of a USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll conducted in November.


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