- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 20, 2005

Last month, House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas suggested that both Social Security and tax reform could be considered “virtually simultaneously.” In a December interview with Al Hunt for CNN’s “Capital Gang,” Mr. Thomas explained, “[I]f you examine the two issues, they tend to complement each other to a certain extent.” This week, at a forum hosted by the National Journal magazine, Mr. Thomas reiterated that view. Then he further suggested that the issue of long-term care, which would likely involve significant revisions to both Medicare and Medicaid, could be added to the mix.

Mr. Thomas was essentially responding to the political vacuum created by the White House’s decision to delay offering the details of its Social Security reform package. The White House’s emphasis on Social Security’s long-term problems in the absence of a detailed proposal to solve them has given Democrats and AARP (the lobbying group that implausibly claims to speak for all retirees and near-retirees) an opportunity to demagogue any reform option that includes adjusting benefits.

Needless to say, the president’s political opponents have seized the opportunity. More than a few Republicans have reacted by distancing themselves from any bold Social Security initiative that the White House might propose. Mr. Thomas stepped forward Tuesday by warning that the evolving, intensifying partisan warfare would likely render the president’s forthcoming Social Security proposal “a dead horse.”

Mr. Thomas seems to be saying that what he is hearing coming out of the White House in dribs and drabs, even after they are codified into a unified plan, cannot pass the Congress. That may well be a reasonable assessment of the political terrain. The views of Mr. Thomas should always be given the attention they deserve. Not only is he chairman of the committee that controls legislation involving tax reform, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He also is very smart. But that doesn’t mean he is always right.

Mr. Thomas is clearly envisioning a much larger reform project than the president is considering. At a rational level, a comprehensive package addressing the foreseeable needs of an aging nation would include Medicare and Medicaid in addition to Social Security. Injecting tax reform into the mix could theoretically provide the glue that keeps the package together.

To be sure, incorporating a wide-ranging series of needed reforms into a single package would probably bring a more systematic design into which discrete bills might more rationally fit. At a practical level, however, even the considerable legislative skills of Mr. Thomas could easily be overwhelmed by the nearly incalculable complexity of such an effort. It probably is not politically doable.

In the end, today’s moment to reform Social Security cannot be allowed to pass because a problem-solving plan does not meet the schematic design of the Ways and Means chairman. We cannot let a larger vision of reform prevent us from taking useful action now. But first the White House must unveil its plan — the sooner the better.

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