Lately, an unsettling thing seems to have been happening. Some of the problems widely considered to be intractable -- perennial -- are getting solved. Maybe not solved forever, but at least taken off the critical list for the foreseeable future. How about time out for a little good news?
Take Social Security. The conventional wisdom about Social Security is hard to shake. For years, lawmakers and the public remained unconvinced that legislated benefit improvements and poor economic conditions in the 1970s had put the trust funds on a path toward real and imminent trouble. Then came the deficit crises of the '80s, and the idea gained currency that "middle-class entitlements" (read: Social Security) were the real source of the problem.
With the retirement fund already dipping into the disability and Medicare funds to cover a part of its monthly payments, the urgency of the situation was no longer in question. Still, many political observers doubted that anything more than a stopgap solution could be devised with a congressional election in the offing and both parties' propaganda mills churning at full tilt.
But then a miracle happened. With the election out of the way, leaders in both houses lent their full strength to securing passage of a reform measure devised by a truly bipartisan commission composed of genuine experts on the subject. It's still hard to convince people that the 1983 reforms are really working. But it's a fact that the retirement trust fund is already building up a comfortable cushion, and some experts are even worrying that the larger surpluses expected a few years hence may encourage overspending in other parts of the budget or become a drag on economic growth.
What's more, the 1983 reforms included several changes that experts had often proposed on their own merits: taxing part of Social Security benefits received by better-off retirees, for example, and providing coverage for new federal workers. This last reform gave rise to another seemingly intractable problem -- devising a new supplementary retirement system for the federal civil service. Talk about hot potatoes. It had long been assumed that the proximity of much of the federal work force, and the ferocity of its lobbies, meant that Congress could never agree on any changes in federal pensions that were less than an unqualified improvement.
Well, that didn't turn out to be true either. Republican Sen. Ted Stevens and Democratic Rep. Bill Ford got together recently to celebrate passage of an elegant new federal pension system modeled along the lines of the best in the private sector. It won't make all federal workers better off than they would have been under the old system, but it will improve benefits for many, promote mobility -- and so increase opportunities for advancement -- and give the general taxpayer a break as well. Not bad for a couple of years' work.
Then, of course, there's tax reform. Back in 1981, Congress seemed determined to continue loading the tax code with preferences and perversions that only a tax lawyer could love. In 1982, when the full impact of the 1981 excesses became apparent, then Finance Committee chairman Bob Dole managed to recoup some of the more egregious losses. But since then the gains have been few -- for every loophole Congress closed or narrowed, the lobbyists opened or enlarged another.
Only a couple of months ago the conventional wisdom held -- and the Finance Committee seemed committed to confirm -- that the interests vested in the current tax code were far too powerful to exhume. But that was before they got a whiff of the low tax rates that thoroughgoing reform can make possible. Tax reform isn't in the bag yet, but Congress is certainly closing in on it.
Even the budget deficit no longer seems an unconquerable challenge. True, budget resolution negotiations have bogged down. But that's partly because the experts are no longer predicting catastrophe if Congress fails to act. Instead, they're saying that a combination of good luck and previous congressional actions could narrow future deficits without much further action. That prediction depends on Congress' keeping military spending at its current pace -- far from a sure thing -- and on the economy chugging along at a moderate but uninterrupted pace. But still the outlook is much brighter.
What accounts for these successes? Political leadership and a sense of panic surely helped. But another common factor is that all these examples of progress were helped along by hardworking, nonpartisan staffers who could draw upon a solid base of information and analysis built up over many years.
Without the help of experienced Joint Tax and Finance Committee staffers, Sen. Bob Packwood could not have surprised his Finance Committee with a full-blown version of tax reform. Federal pension reform would have bogged down without the background studies prepared by the Congressional Research Service and others. The members of the Social Security Commission could not have moved to square one without the options developed over many years by CRS, the Social Security Administration and Ways and Means and Finance committee staffers. And what progress has been made against the budget deficit has depended heavily on the dispassionate analysis of the Congressional Budget Office.
In the land of blue smoke and mirrors, facts can't make things happen. But when the political time is ripe for change, facts can make it much harder for bad choices to be made.
The writer is a former member of the editorial page staff.