- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 8, 2002

The head of the Social Security Administration criticized Democrats yesterday for using false charges and "incendiary rhetoric" to stir up political fears over President Bush's plan to reform the retirement system.
Jo Anne Barnhart said there is no truth to Democratic claims that Mr. Bush's plan will cut retiree benefits or that the administration was robbing the trust fund.
"I think the fear factor is really unfortunate. It is important that Social Security beneficiaries be reassured," said Mrs. Barnhart told The Washington Times yesterday her first interview since Mr. Bush selected her last summer to run the nation's largest retirement program.
"The use of highly charged, incendiary rhetoric doesn't accomplish this," she said.
Mrs. Barnhart spoke approvingly of Mr. Bush's plan, saying it's important to restore faith in the program and give people more control over their retirement funds.
"The most important message that I want to send out is that benefits are not going to be affected. Regardless of what proposal you look at in terms of reform, I want to reassure retirees and near-retirees that they will not have a reduction in benefits," she said.
Democratic leaders have been escalating their attacks on Mr. Bush's Social Security reform plan in recent weeks, believing that the issue will motivate older Americans to vote in larger numbers against Republican congressional candidates this fall.
"It is indisputable that the Bush Social Security Commission's privatization proposals include drastic cuts in guaranteed Social Security benefits," said Sen. Jon Corzine, New Jersey Democrat, who has been leading the attacks in the Senate.
Until yesterday, the White House had not directly struck back at its critics, and Mrs. Barnhart's surprisingly strong remarks signaled that the administration now believes it should respond to the Democrats' mounting political offensive.
Mrs. Barnhart declined to compare the Social Security benefits with what workers would get under Mr. Bush's plan to let workers voluntarily invest part of their payroll taxes in stock and bond mutual funds.
"These are highly technical issues that our actuarial analysts can answer," she said.
But when asked about questions of financial risk and safety that Democrats are raising about Mr. Bush's investment plan, she revealed that her own federal pension was fully invested in stocks.
"I'm a federal employee. I participate in the Thrift Savings Plan. I went into the stock fund," she said. The government's popular Thift Savings Plan lets federal employees invest their retirement funds in stock and bond funds.
Such stock funds are "widely diversified to lower risks" and government bond funds posed no risk, she said. The president's commission on Social Security, which proposed three different plans to implement Mr. Bush's reforms, examined the Thrift Savings Plan as possible model to follow.
Mrs. Barnhart said that she thinks that "we can look at the Thrift Savings Plan" as the basis for a larger retirement for the general public.
"I don't think there is any question that people, particularly younger people, would have more control over their investments in the future," she said of the administration's proposed reforms.


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