The Social Security debate finally arrived in Congress yesterday, and it immediately became a food fight.
Appearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Robert Pozen, a witness whose Social Security plan has been praised by President Bush, said that the personal accounts Bush advocates are the "desserts" and that Social Security's solvency is "the spinach."
Peter Orszag, a witness opposed to Bush's plan, retorted: "The accounts are not sugar; they're like trying to get your kid to eat the spinach by offering a turnip for dessert."
Chairman Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), a friend of agricultural interests, pursued the vegetable dispute, pressing Pozen to explain why "solvency is the spinach that needs to be eaten before we get to the dessert of personal accounts."
The ranking Democrat, Max Baucus (Mont.), quarreled with the accounts-as-dessert theme. "Desserts, when I think of the term, are something on top of a wonderful meal; you get a little sweetener in addition," he said. "This is not a sweetener in addition."
Not to be outdone in culinary metaphor, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) protested to one of the witnesses favoring private accounts: "What you're suggesting is sort of like the idea that somebody can have three hot fudge sundaes a day and lose weight."
Two blocks away from the Hart Building hearing room, a couple of thousand people were assembling for an anti-Bush rally. A band called the Sheiks of Dixie was playing. A choir of Lyndon LaRouche supporters was singing. Organizers were distributing bottles of water labeled "Stop Privatization." A liberal activist drew roars for likening Bush's proposal to "a dead carp."
Grassley was determined to keep a more decorous tone in the committee room. "Outside the hearing room today, we have political theater," he said as he opened the hearing, urging his colleagues to "resist the temptation to allow such theatrics to pervade this hearing room."
Exactly one minute later, a cell phone belonging to one of the witnesses started to play circus music.
It was an apt commentary for a hearing full of runaway metaphors. One witness, Joan Entmacher of the National Women's Law Center, provided testimony saying benefit cuts are "like curing a stubbed toe by cutting off a foot." The Brookings Institution's Orszag expanded on the medical theme, saying arguments for private accounts are "like arguing that snake oil will help to cure strep throat."
For his part, Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) preferred to discuss Medicare, which he called "the real 800-pound gorilla." Orszag, having branded the personal accounts turnips and snake oil, then said they employ "the mother of all magic asterisks."
The five on the panel were an eclectic lot. Cato Institute's Mike Tanner, a personal-account fan, wore a beard and earring. Pozen carried a canvas beach bag. Orszag spoke with a geeky tenor. Peter Ferrara, before speaking for private accounts, apologized that his voice "sounds like a sick turtle today."
The Democrats came with their customary charts. Baucus had two. Conrad had a half-dozen, bathed in red ink. Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) didn't have his own charts, so he started by saying, "Let me just use one of Senator Conrad's charts here."
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) frowned on these displays. "We come up here with our charts and our numbers and our political gobbledygook," he said. Lott invoked his 91-year-old mother and directed Pozen to explain the situation "in as common-sense language as you can."
"Okay," Pozen began. "Taking your mother, she has a replacement ratio now of, let's say, 40 or 50 percent. And if we move completely from wage to price indexing, we're going to reduce her replacement ratio from something like 40 or 50 percent to something . . . like 25 or 30 percent."
Pozen, used by the Democrats as a proxy for the Bush plan, got most of the questions. This changed abruptly midway through the session when Pozen, without any public announcement, picked up his beach bag and walked out of the room, never to return. (He had a meeting in Boston.) Ferrara took advantage of Pozen's disappearance to deliver an impassioned and unprompted speech, until Lott cut him off by saying, "We appreciate your energy and enthusiasm, Mr. Ferrara."
It wasn't just Ferrara. While Bush had a Social Security round table in Texas, dozens of lawmakers and interest groups held at least six separate events to coincide with the Finance Committee hearing. The largest of these was the liberal groups' "Rally to Stop Privatization."
There, James Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt's grandson, introduced Democratic lawmakers, who gleefully needled Bush over polls showing him losing the public-opinion fight over individual accounts. Rep. Charles B. Rangel (N.Y.) delighted the audience by giving Bush three pieces of advice, paraphrasing a Jim Croce song: "One, you don't spit against the wind. Two, you don't look under the Lone Ranger's mask, and three, you don't mess with our Social Security."
The speeches done, the Democrats on the stage joined hands overhead and danced to a Tom Petty tune that seems to have become the minority party's anthem "in a world that keeps on pushin' me around":
Well, I won't back down; no, I won't back down
You can stand me up at the gates of hell
But I won't back down . . .