Happy 70th Birthday, Social Security

Supporters of Americans United to Protect Social Security celebrate the birthday Friday at the FDR Memorial.
Supporters of Americans United to Protect Social Security celebrate the birthday Friday at the FDR Memorial. (Chip Somodevilla - Getty Images)
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 14, 2005

Seventy years ago today, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the law that created the Social Security system, but this year's great debate over the program's future has all but left behind President Bush's goal of maintaining the system's solvency through the baby boom's retirement.

Instead, the battle lines have shifted to a House Republican plan to establish private investment accounts out of Social Security's cash surplus, a plan that even its advocates say would do nothing to improve the program's financial outlook.

Opponents of private accounts will be out in force today, with 131 events celebrating Social Security's anniversary, including birthday balloons on the Mall and the distribution of 50,000 "birthday cards" laying out opposition to the latest version of a Social Security restructuring. On Friday, James Roosevelt kicked off events at a rally in front of his grandfather's memorial.

Bush administration officials are also fanning out this weekend to make the case that the nation can best honor the program by accepting the president's prescriptions for its future.

But Republican lawmakers -- and even pro-Bush lobbyists -- concede there is very little momentum left for the steps needed to secure the system's fiscal health.

"One way or another, everyone's lost sight of why we're here," said Derrick A. Max, executive director of the business-backed Coalition for the Modernization and Protection of America's Social Security. "That's part of my angst with this whole birthday celebration."

To be sure, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) will try to craft a broad retirement security proposal next month to extend Social Security for decades, Republican lawmakers say. But a large number of rank-and-file House Republicans have made it clear they do not want to vote on any bill that cuts promised benefits, boosts the retirement age or raises taxes -- the steps necessary to extend the program's life with full benefits -- if the Senate cannot pass a Social Security bill. And that is becoming increasingly clear, GOP lawmakers and aides say.

"As far as further steps toward solvency, the question is, how much further action are we going to see in the Senate?" said Rep. Eric I. Cantor (Va.), the chief deputy whip for House Republicans. "Members are rightly concerned about what's going to happen in the Senate."

Typical is the statement by Rep. Anne M. Northup (R-Ky.) outlining what she is looking for in a Social Security bill: "The plan I support for strengthening Social Security would not increase taxes, it would guarantee promised benefits, and it would make Social Security permanently solvent."

Leaders sent Republican lawmakers home for the August recess with two pages of talking points on the GROW account, or Growing Real Ownership for Workers.

"This bill is not a full solvency package," the talking points concede. "However, it will improve the solvency of Social Security by approximately two years."

That would push the date the system could not pay full benefits from 2041, as the Social Security actuaries project, to 2043. But even that modest shift is accomplished by transferring at least $610 billion in general taxes to Social Security, critics say.

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