Within the limits of what can be known about the future, it seems safe to say that the reform measure passed by Congress will put the Social Security retirement system on a sound financial basis for many years to come. That Congress should have agreed to any reform measure at all is remarkable. Only a few months ago bitter partisan wrangling seemed likely to block any action except a stopgap measure needed to keep Social Security checks flowing. That the measure that emerged should be--as it is--an essentially sound and reasonable compromise is near miraculous.
There are many heroes in the fight to rescue Social Security. Some who spring to mind include those members of the bipartisan Social Security commission--notably chairman Alan Greenspan, former Social Security commissioner Robert Ball, Sens. Daniel P. Moynihan and Robert Dole and Rep. Barber Conable--who refused to give up trying for a compromise when, early this year, the commission seemed hopelessly deadlocked.
In the House, Ways and Means Committee Chairman Dan Rostenkowski got things off to a good start by urging his colleagues to forswear the campaign bickering over Social Security, and begin working to restore public confidence in the system. With strong support from its leadership and from Social Security subcommittee chairman J. J. Pickle, the House quickly produced and passed a bill that not only adopted the commission's major recommendations, but actually went beyond them to solve Social Security's long-run as well as short-run problems. 4 Sen. Dole's Finance Committee followed suit with a measure that differed in certain respects from the House version, but achieved essentially the same results. At this point, however, we run out of heroes. The bad guys who set off the chaos on the Senate floor came from both parties. Their shenanigans jeopardized the fate of the most important piece of legislation likely to be considered by this Congress.
Thanks to strong Republican leadership in the Senate and the stalwart behavior of the House conferees, the Senate floor fights over interest and dividend withholding and Social Security coverage of government workers came out all right in the end. But, with a few notable exceptions, Senate Democrats--several of whom aspire to still higher office-- managed on some key votes to do severe damage to the Senate's reputation for responsible behavior.
It will be an enormous relief to everyone involved --the administration, Congress and the public--to have Social Security off the political agenda. It would be comforting, but unrealistic, to think that Social Security could now be put on automatic pilot, its problems solved for all time. The future is simply too complicated for that to be likely. Still, much has been accomplished. The country has reaffirmed its support for its most important social program. Many myths about that program have been dispelled. And the political system has demonstrated that, when pressed hard enough, it can compel tough decisions and sustain them.