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Hill Hearing on Social Security Turns Hostile

By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 20, 1998; Page A23

President Clinton vows he wants to work with Republicans to make 1999 the year the government forges a lasting solution to the nation's looming Social Security crisis. Congressional Republican leaders say they want the same thing.

But for all the pledges of collaboration, the tone was decidedly hostile yesterday at the first legislative hearing since the midterm elections to consider what is likely to emerge as one of the central social policy issues of the coming year.

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer (R-Tex.) scolded the administration, contending the White House will subvert the chance to safeguard the nation's vast retirement system unless it sets forth a rescue plan soon.

"If President Clinton believes he can get this done without his leadership or without a specific plan, he may be making the biggest miscalculation of his presidency," said Archer, whose committee oversees Social Security.

But David Wilcox, the Treasury Department's assistant secretary for economic policy, avoided any such commitment. Deflecting two hours of grilling by legislators, Wilcox clung to the White House's position that it is too early to decide either how the program should be changed or the best way to proceed. He said Clinton would continue to assess whether "proposing a specific plan would help move the process forward."

The partisan jockeying reflects the stakes -- and the sensitivity -- in trying to revise an enormously popular social program that faces insolvency as the baby boomers start to retire early in the next century. With the number of retirees growing while the pool of workers supporting them diminishes, the trust fund is predicted to become depleted by 2032.

Since last winter, the White House has tried to stimulate discussion about how to address the issue. It has conducted three "town meetings" with citizens and has scheduled a two-day conference for Dec. 8 and 9. Administration officials have been trying to dampen expectations for what the conference will yield. And they are wary of writing a plan that could become a Republican target, suggesting they may propose general "principles" for reform or simply try to work out an agreement with the Republicans.

Yesterday, Wilcox was peppered with questions about whether the administration would support various alternatives -- such as cutting benefits, raising the eligibility age, or switching to some form of private investments. He gave a solid answer on just one point, saying the White House did not want to increase the payroll tax rate from 12.4 percent.

Even so, he did not explicitly rule out other kinds of revenue increases, such as raising or eliminating the cap on the amount of income subject to that payroll tax, extending the tax to certain state and government employees who do not pay it now, or lowering the threshold at which recipients must pay income tax on their benefits.

"Boy, you sound like you are bobbing and weaving and waiting for the next election. There is no next election for this president," said Rep. Bill Thomas (R-Calif.).

A quartet of economists, with divergent beliefs about how the program should be changed, told the lawmakers they, too, believe the White House is better-equipped than Congress to take the lead. And they urged the government to act while the economy is strong and the public is interested.

"The planets are aligned about as well as one could hope for," said Robert D. Reischauer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Staff writer George Hager contributed to this report.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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