- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 19, 2004

President Bush hasn’t even taken the oath of office for his second term, yet the nattering naysayers of negativism already give most of his agenda little chance.

News articles pop up everywhere that gloomily point to huge obstacles confronting the president’s No. 1 domestic initiative in the New Year: reforming Social Security to let workers voluntarily invest part of their payroll taxes in stocks or bonds. Powerful groups like the AARP oppose it and Democrats threaten to raise every possible roadblock to keep it from passing the Senate.

Similarly, a week of interviews with big-business lobbying groups here yielded more reasons for Mr. Bush’s tax reform plan going nowhere than arguments for passing it. Too many taxpayer constituencies have vested interests in keeping the tax code just the way it is, they told me.

Elsewhere, the president’s pledge to cut the deficit in half in four years is ridiculed in congressional backrooms as “pie in the sky” thinking. And the Association of Trial Lawyers met to plot a massive $8 million offensive against Mr. Bush’s bill to curb medical malpractice lawsuits. Environmental opponents predict defeat of his plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil exploration. The Sierra Club has vowed “to fight this every step of the way.”

But there are many reasons these and other legislative initiatives might well pass, in one form or other:

Social Security: Polls show more support for private investment payroll accounts at the grass roots, particularly among younger workers, than opponents acknowledge. More important, perhaps, the drive to keep the program solvent will likely become Mr. Bush’s strongest argument for structural change. Raising payroll taxes is politically unacceptable. Gradually shrinking the program’s future liabilities through private plans backed by real assets, not promises, is the only way to go.

A week ago, U.S. Comptroller General David Walker said Mr. Bush’s investment accounts “will not deal with the solvency and sustainability of the Social Security fund.” But all studies of the private plans show, over time, the power of compound interest would shift future costs from the taxpayer to worker-owned income-producing securities and annuities.

What Mr. Walker and other critics do not address is the higher investment yields, perhaps 5 percent to 8 percent higher, workers could receive over their lifetime. That, too, is a strategic (maybe pivotal) part of the coming debate that will drive this reform through Congress.

Tax reform: Listening to business lobbyists tell me the reasons fundamental tax reform is unlikely in Mr. Bush’s term left me wondering how President Reagan got his own revenue-neutral tax reform bill enacted in 1986.

Its major selling points appealed to key parts of the Washington power structure. Many Democrats bought into it because it eliminated a number of corporate loopholes and, thus, broadened the tax base, which added enough revenue to offset the cutting individual tax rates (which appeals to conservative Republican supply-siders).

Forgotten in the tax-cutting history books is the fact Democratic leaders like Dick Gephardt and Bill Bradley backed Mr. Reagan’s bill, which cut the marginal top rate to 28 percent. This time, Mr. Bush may be able to develop an even stronger coalition if he makes tax simplification a fundamental part of his reforms. Everyone hates the system we have now. Simplifying it, and, thus, making is cheaper to do your taxes, would make such a plan a slam-dunk.

Drilling in ANWR: Mr. Bush fought for four years to get his energy independence plan through the Senate, but lacked the votes to cut through unyielding Democratic opposition, despite backing from James Hoffa and the Teamsters, who see this as a jobs-producer for their union members.

But the Senate political balance of power has shifted dramatically in Mr. Bush’s favor, thanks to the new Republican senators who picked up five open Democratic seats across the South on Nov. 2. The prospects for this bill, with the support of several Democrats, now are quite good.

Tort Reform: Signaling he has not given up his intentions to limit excessive lawsuits, Mr. Bush focused last week on the need for tort reform in the first of two major speeches at a two-day White House conference on the economy. At a panel on “lawsuit abuse,” Mr. Bush ripped into “the class-action meat grinder” that costs the economy more than $250 billion yearly in higher medical care costs.

Critics have taken a dim view of Mr. Bush’s chances of limiting class-action suits, but the GOP’s stronger majority in the Senate now puts the 60-vote anti-filibuster motion within reach. Senate sources say lawsuit reform is now doable.

Mr. Bush is tackling some very big reform issues in his second term and none will be easy, but his prospects have never looked better. As he would say, “I like my chances.”

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent of The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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