FOR A GOOD MANY PEOPLE in this town, the biggest event of the next few days will be a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives. It will be on Rep. Joseph L. Fisher's attempt to kill a proposal that would put government workers into the Social Security system by 1982. That proposal has been widely misunderstood. Contrary to some reports, it would not merge the existing federal retirement system with Social Security. Rather, it would merely direct that "all" workers come under Social Security. The article by Rep. Fisher on the opposite page today clears the air of much of the confusion.
There are two main arguments for bringing government workers - states as well as federal - into the Social Security system. One of these - that their help is needed to keep that system out of its serious financial troubles - has little to commend it. Putting government workers into the system would improve its financial base substantially in the short-run and aid it somewhat in the long-run. But that alone will not get Social Security out of the difficulties that have been created by a failure to keep revenues rising as rapidly as expenses. And, in any case, a quick fix for the deep and chronic difficulties of the Social Security system clearly ought not to be the basis on which to makes so important a change.
The other argument for the plan is that Social Security ought to be "universal" as a matter of principle. It was designed to provide a minimum level of income for the elderly at a time when private pension plans were few and far between. Because it is an expensive way to provide that income, and because there are elements of a subsidy for some in it, the burden of paying for it ought to be borne by all workers, not just those in private industry.
The latter argument carries a great deal of weight with us and for that reason we are not persuaded by Mr. Fisher's contention that this proposal should be stripped from this year's Social Security bill. It is true that adjusting the terms of federal retirement programs in order to compensate for the inclusion of these workers in Social Security would be a complicated job. But these are adjustments that have been handled in hundreds of companies were private pension plans are tied to Social Security payments in some way or other. They ought not to be insoluble for the federal government. For government workers, as for millions of other workers, Social Security can provide a base for retirement on which a pension plan can be built.
The one weakness of this proposal that raised legitimate worries among government workers seems to have been adequately dealt with by the Ways and Means Committee. At Mr. Fisher's urging, it adopted a provision requiring that the Department of Health, Education and Welfare develop a plan under which government workers will not be made worse off in terms of contributions and benefit levels when they are taken into the Social Security system. While it can be argued that this plan ought to be in place before coverage under Social Security is ordered by Congress, the effetive dates in this legislation provide plenty of time to develop it.HEW is directed to present the plan to Congress before 1980, and the first date for coverage of government workers under Social Security is 1982. Surely HEW can move that quickly, particularly given the impetus of knowing it is dealing with the problems of its own workers.