One month after he announced them, President Bush’s proposals for Social Security reform are fast losing political momentum with Congress and the public.
Republican lawmakers who tried to sell the president’s ideas during a weeklong congressional recess returned to Washington discouraged by skeptical constituent reactions. Some Republican House members didn’t even try, as House Republican leader Tom DeLay of Texas noted with irritation.
Politically, the Senate would have to act on any reforms first; the House won’t vote until the Senate does. But Republican Senate leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said — and later slightly backed off — the reforms might have to wait until next year.
Some political analysts believe that would be the kiss of death for reform until a new president takes office. In 2006, the reasoning goes, the members of Congress up for re-election would be reluctant to touch the issue. In the two years afterward, Mr. Bush would be an even lamer duck, and Congress would be preoccupied with presidential politics.
The centerpiece of the Bush plan is private accounts, allowing younger workers to divert part of their Social Security taxes into a limited selection of stock and bond funds.
However, the public quickly grasped two key points: Private accounts don’t address Social Security’s long-term solvency, which Mr. Bush always said was the real problem; and that private accounts would be offset by benefit cuts. Mr. Bush tends to spackle over both points in discussing the plan.
Mr. Bush did at least get Congress talking about Social Security, and a number of reform proposals are being floated on Capitol Hill. While the White House says Mr. Bush welcomes fresh ideas, he is said to privately oppose most of them.
The president is nothing if not bold. He, Vice President Dick Cheney, Treasury Secretary John Snow and other top administration officials soon will embark on a 60-day, 60-city tour to sell the president’s plan — which, it should be noted, nobody outside the White House has seen in its entirety.
Those 60 days could be critical. If Mr. Bush can’t sway the public, Social Security reform isn’t necessarily dead, but his particular plan is. The impetus for change will pass to others.
Dale McFeatters is a Scripps Howard News Service columnist.