Congressional Republicans have come forward with two new ideas to break the impasse in the Social Security debate. One is a red herring, deserving of the scorn with which Democrats greeted it. The other could be the real thing -- if Democrats were willing to engage for the first time this year in a serious effort to save the great New Deal program for future generations.
The first proposal -- the one that fails the test of political and fiscal credibility -- came from a quartet of Ways and Means Committee members, with the blessing of House GOP leaders. Intent on salvaging something of President Bush's proposal for individual savings accounts as part of Social Security, they propose to earmark the current Social Security surpluses to launch such accounts.
This year, and for the next 11 years, Social Security taxes will bring in more money than the benefits cost. That surplus now is diverted to pay other government bills, with Treasury IOUs going into the Social Security portfolio. By tapping that surplus, this plan would allow Social Security to give each worker a personal savings account.
But the amount each would receive would be small -- less than $600 a year initially -- and it would decline each year as the number of retirees grew and the surplus dwindled to zero after 2016. Meanwhile, the government would have to figure out how to replace $600 billion of lost revenue over the next decade, according to the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
In short, this plan would give temporary financing to a token individual savings account but would complicate the overall budget deficit dilemma and do nothing to solve the long-term solvency problems of Social Security as the baby boomers start retiring in two years.
The serious proposal comes from Sen. Robert Bennett, a Utah Republican. Though Bennett favors private accounts, his bill would leave them to a future Congress, while focusing for now on the solvency problem.
Bennett attacks the problem in two ways: first, by adopting the proposal embraced by Bush, as well as by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), to calculate future Social Security benefits on a sliding scale based on recipients' income. Initial benefits for the lowest-income third would be based on the growth in wages during their working life, the richest on the growth in prices. Those in between would use a blended rate.
Because wages historically outpace prices, the effect is to provide the greatest retirement protection to lower-income families while penalizing the wealthy.
Second, once the plan was in effect, Bennett would adjust the yearly benefits according to the latest actuarial tables. As life expectancy for recipients grew, the monthly check would be reduced proportionately to keep the lifetime payout constant.
Together, those two steps, Bennett has been told by actuaries, would eliminate 90 percent or more of the looming Social Security deficit.
When Bennett outlined his proposal in a Republican leadership meeting with Bush last week, the president encouraged him to go forward. Bennett quoted him as saying, "I like your bill, period."
White House spokesmen quickly added that Bush was not abandoning his desire for private accounts -- despite polls showing broad public disapproval of his approach. Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada was quick to dismiss the Bennett idea as a "bait-and-switch" scheme, designed to lure the Democrats into negotiations that would ultimately produce a bill with private accounts. Reid repeated his demand that Bush take those accounts off the table before the negotiations begin -- something the president plainly will not do.
Democrats are feeling smug about the way they have stymied Bush on Social Security. When I asked Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean last week about his party's position on the issue, he said, "We're in a great place. We have been able to block privatization."
But the program is not in a great place. The insolvency problem is real, and it needs to be fixed. No one who knows Bob Bennett believes he is a "bait-and-switch" game-player.
Democrats need to recall what John Kennedy did during the Cuban missile crisis. The president received two messages from Nikita Khrushchev on successive days, the first outlining easy terms for resolving the crisis -- a pledge of no U.S. invasion -- and the second adding other conditions. Kennedy decided to respond to the first and ignore the second, and the crisis was resolved.
If they are responsible, Democrats will take Bennett at his word, come out of their defensive crouch, negotiate -- and put Bush and the Republicans on the spot. To balk at such an offer would be a sign they are putting politics above the national interest.