Where Does the Bean Soup Fit In?

By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, April 27, 2005

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."

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