- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 9, 2002

President Bush will be very active in this year's election war with the Democrats over his Social Security reform plan, promoting private ownership and choice to give workers more control over their retirement savings, a White House adviser said yesterday.
"You are going to see a lot of discussion. They're going to be ready to talk about this," said Charles P. Blahous, who was executive director of Mr. Bush's blue-ribbon commission to save the Social Security system from bankruptcy.
Democratic leaders are planning to make the administration's proposal to let workers invest part of their payroll taxes in stocks and bonds a major issue in this fall's congressional elections, which could be some of the closest in years. However, House Republicans oppose Democratic efforts to debate the president's reform proposals in this session of Congress, raising questions about how actively the White House wants to promote a politically potent issue that is popular with workers but not with millions of retirees.
But Mr. Blahous, a special assistant to the president for economic affairs, made it clear that the White House plans to aggressively debate the Democrats on this issue over the coming months.
"The notion that the reformers want to avoid this issue is a myth," he said in an interview yesterday. "We want the issue to be discussed in a substantive way, but we don't want the debate framed in politically partisan terms."
While White House advisers are still working out some of the details in the way that Mr. Bush plans to counter the Democrats' campaign offensive against his proposal, Mr. Blahous said the president will focus on two features in his plan that are especially popular among voters.
"He'll focus on giving workers the right of inheritance as a matter of choice. Choice is what he is going to talk about, and ownership," Mr. Blahous said.
Mr. Bush's reform plan would create personal retirement investment accounts that, unlike Social Security, workers would own, control and could leave to their heirs when they die. Moreover, the accounts would be voluntary. Anyone who wants to remain in the present system can do so.
"He's going to continue to articulate a broad vision," Mr. Blahous said. The strategy will be to "talk about it positively, not defensively, and to talk about it early."
"All the surveys show that the public understanding for reform deepens the more we talk about it," he said.
Mr. Blahous dismissed Democratic charges that the president's plan would cut Social Security benefits for retirees, saying that none of the three options drafted by the commission "would cut anyone's benefits."
"Seniors need to be assured that their benefits are not going to be touched. This is about creating larger benefits in the future," he said.
Democrats have sought to tie Mr. Bush's plan into the Enron scandal, charging that workers risked losing all of their retirement savings, just like Enron workers who saw the value of their company stock become virtually worthless.
But Mr. Blahous said the Enron debacle reminded workers of "the importance of diversifying their investments" and showed how important it is for workers to have more control over their own retirement accounts.
Democratic leaders have not proposed any reform bill of their own. But Rep. Peter A. DeFazio, Oregon Democrat, has introduced a bill that would eliminate the wage cap on payroll taxes and thus raise taxes to help offset the system's future shortfall.
Republicans intend to use his bill to bolster their argument that Democrats would raise taxes on workers to solve Social Security's solvency problems. "I would not want to be in the position of saying you have to raise taxes to fix Social Security," Mr. Blahous said.


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