- The Washington Times - Friday, March 22, 2002

Let's make sure I understand this: Republicans in Washington are proposing legislation that would require the government to guarantee in writing that retirees will receive all of their promised Social Security benefits. And Democrats are attacking the proposal as a threat to Social Security's future.

I know this issue is considered the "third rail" of American politics. But frankly, folks, this is a fight the Republicans can't lose unless they run from it (as they have in the past).

If Democrats can successfully sell the idea that guaranteed benefits are a threat to senior citizens, we all ought to pack our bags and move to Zimbabwe. If Republicans are so timid that they can't explain that a written guarantee is a good thing, we ought to drop them into Zimbabwe first, without parachutes.

The idea making the rounds on Capitol Hill is not a new one. Economist Stuart Butler of the Heritage Foundation proposed the benefit guarantee in his 1985 book, "Privatizing Government Spending." And, he tells me, it was not an entirely new idea even then.

Over the years, we have seen various incarnations of the proposal; most recently, the various measures (more rhetorical than real) to create a Social Security "lock box," where all retirement taxes above and beyond what is needed to pay current benefits would be deposited. The problem is that excess Social Security taxes have never been set aside in a lock box, bank vault, "trust fund" or even under granny's mattress to pay future Social Security benefits. Payroll taxes (FICA on your pay stub) are used to pay current beneficiaries and surplus funds the tens of millions above and beyond what is needed for current benefits are used to help pay for other government programs.

And it's not limited to programs for seniors: I'm talking about everything Washington finances, from vital military operations to wasteful farm subsidies and congressional "earmarks" local projects favored by individual members of Congress such as the $740,000 Washington will spend on the National Soccer Center in Lancaster, Calif., the $190,000 earmarked for the Motor Racing Museum in Spartanburg, S.C., and the $5 million going to the Palace of the Governors in Santa Fe, N. M.

If all of the surplus Social Security taxes paid over the years had been put in a simple savings account earning minimum interest, Social Security would be solvent for decades to come maybe forever. But that would have defused the issue, something certain members of Congress would not like to see happen.

Republican politicians should welcome the Democrats' attack on the guarantee proposal. According to a recent nationwide poll of 1,200 adults, conducted by Fabrizio McLaughlin Associates for my organization, the 60 Plus Association, the time is ripe for Republicans to push their Social Security reform plans.

Conducted in mid-January, the poll showed that the public, by a wide margin (51 percent to 34 percent) has more confidence in President Bush than Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to do the right thing on Social Security.

My advice to Republicans, then, is: Do the right thing. Don't run. Don't hide. And don't back down. Engage Mr. Daschle and his demagogic colleagues.

Mr. Bush already has demonstrated on the education issue that he can go head-to-head with his opponents on a traditionally Democratic issue and emerge victorious. So, rather than shy away from confrontation on Social Security, he and his congressional colleagues should take the issue on and we'll see who's left standing at the end of the day.

As the president noted Feb. 28 at the National Summit on Retirement Savings, Social Security is not a personal savings program: "Retirees' benefits are paid directly from the taxes paid each year by current workers." And, sadly, the average return on Social Security is less than 2 percent.

Social Security must be fixed. Providing a guarantee to current retirees is a good place to start. The Republicans should fight for this one. And after they protect current beneficiaries, they can push for the kind of meaningful reform that will allow future generations to benefit from, as the president put it, "the power of savings, investing and compound interest."

James L. Martin is president of the 60 Plus Association, a 500,000-member national senior citizens organization.

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