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Who Will Rescue Social Security?

By David S. Broder
Sunday, November 29, 1998; Page C07

opinion
On two of the biggest issues confronting Congress and the Clinton administration -- Social Security and Medicare -- it is hard to find anyone optimistic about action in the coming year. Everyone I interviewed agrees there may be a small window of opportunity -- six to eight months -- to deal with these two vital programs before the politics of the next election overwhelm everything. But few of those interviewed at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue have high hopes.

One dissenter from the general gloom is Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, who lobbied me over breakfast to write optimistically about the chances of a bipartisan breakthrough that would avoid the bankruptcy that threatens Medicare within the next decade and Social Security about 20 years later.

Democrat Wyden is fresh off a big reelection victory and is happily demonstrating, with his Oregon colleague, Republican Sen. Gordon Smith, that rampant partisanship is not permanently etched into our politics. Smith and Wyden squared off in a thoroughly nasty special election early in 1996, won by the Democrat, but less than a year later, Smith won the other Oregon seat when it became vacant. Now the two men have become comfortable enough with each other to schedule joint town meetings around the state to formulate a common legislative agenda.

That is a rarity, but Wyden is urging Senate leaders to take a similar bipartisan approach to the two big entitlement programs. The next two weeks may tell a lot about whether that is feasible. This week, the National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare will meet for the first time since the election, to begin testing whether it can enlist enough of its members behind any reform proposal to meet its March 1 deadline for reporting back to Congress.

A week later, President Clinton will play host to the last of four roundtables on Social Security reform, with invitations out to key members of Congress from both parties and all the major interest groups.

Since last January, Clinton has emphasized the importance of "saving Social Security first." He said he hoped to hammer out a bipartisan plan once the campaign was out of the way.

But the closer this White House summit has come, the more administration officials have backed away from any expectations of a breakthrough. Gene Sperling, the head of the White House National Economic Council, which is staffing the session, told me, "If the right people come and really engage, it could lay the foundation for working together in a pragmatic way. But this is not going to be a negotiating session. It can't happen in a day and a half."

Privately, many in the administration are far more pessimistic. While Democrats did not make Social Security as much a partisan issue in the 1998 campaign as in some past years, the lines are now being drawn. Conservative think tanks such as the CATO Institute and the Heritage Foundation want Republicans to insist on converting a portion of future Social Security taxes into individual savings accounts. Labor and its allies, which are owed a lot by the Democrats, next week will announce a major effort to block any such change.

An administration official said, "There's a substantial chance that by March, the Republicans will be attacking the Democrats as socialists and Democrats will be accusing Republicans of wanting your grandmother to survive on cat food."

Chairman Bill Archer of the House Ways and Means Committee has warned that unless Clinton soon offers a specific Social Security plan of his own, nothing will be passed. The president, still scarred from the 1994 health care reform battle, where he did just that, is afraid to do so, for fear it will reveal the divisions in Democratic ranks and put Vice President Gore into the cross-fire. But without Clinton providing political cover, Republicans may well bypass Social Security and move ahead instead on a major tax cut bill.

If anything, the Medicare challenge is tougher, almost everyone agrees. The financial crisis is closer at hand, and the differences between those on the commission who simply want to tinker with the present program and those who advocate a major structural overhaul to make it operate more like private health insurance appear almost unbridgeable. The co-chairmen, Democratic Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana and Republican Rep. Bill Thomas of California, both told me they are frustrated that the president has put all his emphasis on Social Security. But several commission members and close observers say that with three months to go, Breaux and Thomas are not even close to finding agreement within the commission.

It is going to take strong leadership -- and a load of luck -- to avoid gridlock on both these vital fronts.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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