- The Washington Times - Monday, March 28, 2005

BEDFORD, Iowa (AP) — Sen. Charles E. Grassley, who was assigned to put President Bush’s Social Security ideas into a bill, is finding little clamor for it among the people who have kept him in the Senate for 25 years.

“What I need to hear people say is, “We expect you to fix this,’” the Iowa Republican said in between town-hall meetings. “I’m not hearing that.”

At each stop in an Easter week marathon of meetings in 19 counties, the 71-year-old chairman of the Senate Finance Committee tries to make the case that the federal pension system protecting millions of older Americans from poverty is in trouble.

A two-word question from Randy Simmons — “Social Security?” — becomes the cue for Mr. Grassley’s 10-minute spiel, complete with brightly colored charts and reams of complex tables.

The senator recites a half-dozen options being considered, including raising the retirement age, raising the payroll tax and cutting benefits. He offers no preference, saying everything is on the table. He favors private accounts but says they alone will not ensure solvency of the system.

If nothing is done, Mr. Grassley warns his audience, Social Security will go broke by 2042. If Congress waits just one more year to fix it, the cost will be another $600 billion.

“Do you have any questions?” he asked.

“Where do you want to start?” said Mr. Simmons, a 52-year-old insurance executive.

Iowa is one of the most politically engaged states in the nation. In 2004, 70 percent of Iowans voted, well above the 60.7 percent nationwide participation rate. The Iowa caucuses, the first event on the presidential primary calendar, make the state inordinately influential in determining the major-party candidates for president each year.

At each of Mr. Grassley’s stops, Social Security was high on a list of topics that also include trade, farm policy and education. The mixed message he is getting is not the one the White House wanted when a week earlier Mr. Bush urged lawmakers to meet with people in their states and districts.

House Republicans are skittish, telling the senators they should make the first move. That means whatever legislation is written will have to start with Mr. Grassley.

One troubling aspect of Mr. Grassley’s town meetings is the demographics: Everywhere he goes, he sees a lot of people with gray hair, but not many young people. According to the 2000 Census, 14.9 percent of Iowans are 65 or older. That is the fourth-highest percentage in the nation.

Marvin Adcock, a Shenandoah City Council member, has little enthusiasm for Mr. Bush’s idea of letting younger workers divert some of their Social Security taxes to personal retirement accounts.

“That isn’t fixing the Social Security program,” Mr. Adcock said. “I’ve had private accounts for 30 years. The market is very volatile.”

Mr. Grassley’s verdict at week’s end?

“I think it’s very difficult for me to say today that we’ll present a bill to the president,” he said.

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