Monday, January 9, 2006

Columnist Robert Samuelson recently described Congress’ inability to reform entitlements like Social Security and Medicare as a form of political “paralysis” caused by competing moral claims. People believe the government “promised” these benefits and they now have a “moral right to receive them” even if these demands “no longer make sense and are ultimately unworkable. If we were designing these programs today, we’d do it differently,” Mr. Samuelson writes (Dec. 28 in The Washington Post). We would be less generous toward affluent retirees and question why age alone (rather than need) “should qualify people for government assistance.” Mr. Samuelson’s observation may also help explain why voters hold such strong feelings about spending the Social Security Trust Fund.

In the latest version of the American Survey (national sample of 800 registered voters, Nov. 28 to Dec. 4, margin of error +/-3.5 percent), we asked several questions about Social Security. Voters decisively reject proposals to spend Social Security funds outside the system and favor barring politicians from using the funds, in effect saying to lawmakers, “don’t tread on this morally sacred ground.” For example, we asked voters to choose between two candidates with competing views on Social Security in the next congressional election. One supports borrowing from Social Security to pay for worthy programs like rebuilding hurricane-devastated areas or providing resources to properly arm and protect our troops in Iraq. The other says, “no money from the Social Security system should be borrowed.” Period.

Voters overwhelmingly support the second candidate’s positions: 79 percent oppose borrowing for hurricane relief; and 73 percent are against tapping into these funds even if the sole purpose was to support American troops abroad.

And keeping with the moral imperative theme, voters support taking dramatic steps to protect the program. For example, when asked about the best way to ensure Social Security funds are spent only on the retirement program, a strong plurality of voters chooses passing a constitutional amendment to prevent Congress from spending this money on other programs. Thirty-six percent say they support such an amendment, while 21 percent want to stop giving benefits to people who don’t deserve them, 21 percent think personal accounts would best provide such protection, 11 percent want a well?known group of financial experts to invest the money and only 8 percent support a tax increase to alleviate the need to borrow.

Interestingly, when we substituted the response “cut (other) spending” as an option to avoid spending Social Security funds with “raise taxes.” Almost four times as many people (29 percent) desired spending cuts compared to tax increases (8 percent) as a way to protect Social Security.

Based on these findings, Mr. Samuelson may be on to something. Voters clearly think Social Security holds a special place among federal spending priorities. They want it held harmless — even when faced with other competing and laudable priorities — and they believe lawmakers should shave spending in other areas to protect Social Security before raising taxes. These realities underscore why finding a long-term public-policy solution will continue to prove elusive without bipartisan cooperation in Congress.

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