- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 19, 2005

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley, Iowa Republican, met recently with panel Republicans behind closed doors to discuss Social Security reform proposals.

Mr. Grassley raised the idea of delaying the regular retirement age, the most unpopular Social Security reform idea of all. He also proposed cutting future promised Social Security benefits for those making more than $90,000 per year through price indexing of the benefit formula. What he did not raise was personal accounts.

The Ways and Means Committee also is working on a Social Security bill with a major tax increase along with some form of price indexing of future benefits. Its inclusion of any real personal accounts is very much in doubt.

This result has long been predicted by many reformers who have argued that wading into the swamp of future benefit cuts would lead precisely to a tax increase and abandoning the accounts. Yet the White House staff still says embracing the future, middle-class benefit cuts of progressive price indexing will somehow lead Democrats to support personal accounts. The Democrats, however, have uniformly condemned both price indexing and personal accounts.

A striking poll by The Washington Post/ABC News several weeks ago showed how badly the White House has blundered in linking price indexing and personal accounts. The poll asked people if they would support personal accounts “coupled with a reduction in the growth of guaranteed Social Security benefits for future retirees.” Under that scenario, support for personal accounts plummeted to 27 percent, a loss of almost half in support for personal accounts in the same poll.

Cato Institute President Ed Crane rightly wrote in the Wall Street Journal recently, “If you’re wondering why there is so little grass-roots support to date for the president’s plan, it is because the focus has been on green eyeshade issues such as solvency, transition costs, unfunded liabilities.”

The White House embrace of cutting future promised benefits through price indexing led the debate to these negative, losing themes, rather than the positive, winning theme of a better deal for workers through personal accounts.

Some reformers who favor full privatization through personal accounts have also blundered badly in embracing price indexing. If the system is being privatized, why also advocate reforming the benefit formulas of that old system? The privatization phases out those old benefit formulas out, leaving workers with much better benefits provided by market investment returns.

Illogically embracing price indexing while saying favoring full privatization just leads people to think backers don’t really believe privatization is realistic. Moreover, one major critique from the left is that personal accounts would require massive cuts in Social Security benefits. Those who embrace price indexing along with full personal accounts effectively suggest this completely erroneous argument is correct. Such confusion just kills personal accounts.

The only way to get this debate back on track is to support the developing proposal to use the total Social Security surplus to start personal accounts, in the process ending the current raid of those surpluses to finance other government spending. The total surplus, counting interest on the Social Security trust fund bonds as well as the short-term excess of tax revenue, is enough to finance the first 10 years of the Ryan Sununu bill, which now would provide an account of just more than 3 percent during those years.

The proposal would include no tax increases or cuts in Social Security benefits. Instead, Social Security’s problems would be eliminated completely by later increasing the Ryan Sununu accounts to the full level of about 6.4 percent on average.

This proposal wisely matches the tremendously popular idea of halting the raid on the Social Security trust funds with the highly popular personal accounts. This is a position the Republicans can quite successfully take to the people if Beltway Democrats refuse to support it.

Meanwhile, conservatives must vigorously oppose any Social Security reform bill that includes tax increases. These are completely unnecessary, as personal accounts do the job. Personal accounts offer the potential for the most dramatic reduction in government spending and taxes in world history. Letting reform be hijacked by another tax rise that increases big government would be a historically colossal reversal.

Peter Ferrara is a senior fellow at the Institute for Policy Innovation and the Free Enterprise Fund’s domestic policy director.

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