Tuesday, February 22, 2005

As Democrats prepare for their fight against President Bush’s proposal to privatize Social Security accounts, House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer wants former presidential candidate Ross Perot to return to the airwaves with his 30-minute infomercials blasting government deficits.

Mr. Bush has spent the past several weeks traveling across the country pushing his proposal to let younger workers invest part of their Social Security contributions in private accounts, and now Democrats are having their turn, holding 235 Social Security town hall meetings in coming weeks to warn people that the idea is risky and unnecessary, will undermine Social Security, cut benefits, increase the deficit and harm the economy.

The Maryland Democrat pushed these arguments yesterday at the College of Southern Maryland in La Plata.

“I believe this administration is pursuing the most irresponsible fiscal policies of any administration,” Mr. Hoyer said.

Mr. Hoyer told the audience that the president took the country from surpluses to deficits and that his new private account idea will only add to the problem.

Mr. Hoyer said he asked Mr. Perot in a conversation last year to return to television with infomercials similar to the ones he did in the early 1990s, preaching of the dangers of deficits.

“In his down-home way, I think he’d convey what I think is the real crisis,” Mr. Hoyer said, referring to the president’s fiscal policies.

Mr. Hoyer spoke to a gathering of about 100 people yesterday about the importance of preserving Social Security as a national insurance program — not only for retirees, but for 6 million disabled people, 5 million widows and 4 million children.

The system faces challenges that must be addressed, he said, but it does not face the bleak future that the president and Republicans describe.

“There are long-term issues that need to be addressed, but the [Social Security] trust fund is strong,” he said.

He also said Mr. Bush’s private accounts would divert $5 trillion over 20 years from Social Security — a plan that the government likely would have to finance by selling Treasury bonds to foreign countries.

Private accounts would “put more pressure on the trust fund, not less,” he said. “That doesn’t seem to me to make a lot of sense.”

The White House repeatedly has dismissed such assertions and argued that each year Congress does nothing, Social Security will cost an additional $600 billion to fix. White House officials also have said the president’s plan would cost about $750 billion through 2015 — far less than the Democratis estimate.

“We can’t afford to do nothing,” said Tracey Schmitt, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee. “Some Democrats continue to offer scare tactics and half truths.”

Both sides of the Social Security debate are fighting for the support of young people, who first must be convinced that the issue is something they should care about.

“I am here on a college campus to suggest that all of us need to be very concerned,” Mr. Hoyer told the crowd.

He was joined by Rock the Vote’s Washington director, Hans Reimer, who warned the students that they should make Social Security a top priority.

“After you work so hard to get off your parents’ couch, do you really want them moving back in with you?” he asked, evoking laughter.

Mr. Hoyer said Democrats want to solve Social Security’s long-term financial challenges, but won’t put a specific plan on the table until the Bush administration does so. He did mention some ideas that he is open to, however, including an increase in the amount of income subject to the payroll tax and the creation of private accounts that wouldn’t be diverted from Social Security. He also said the projected $3.7 trillion Social Security shortfall over the next 75 years could be solved if Congress refrains from making Mr. Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthiest 1 percent permanent.

“Young people — what we are doing to you is immoral,” Mr. Hoyer told the college students. “I lament the fact that we are putting you so deeply into debt.”

“He explained it really well,” said Nicole Kurtz, a 20-year-old college student who listened to the talk. “I worry about it a lot. … I think [Social Security] should just keep on the way it has been.”

“I’m for the [Bush] plan,” said 18-year-old student Galen Hall, whose economics class listened to Mr. Hoyer’s speech. “Overall, it’s a good idea to move toward privatization.”

But Mr. Hall said most young people do not care about Social Security reform at all.

“Most people my age are very ignorant to what is going on,” he said.

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