THE COUNTRY IS having some trouble making up its mind about how dire Social Security's financial crisis really is. Despite years of study and six months of political haggling, the public seems no closer to a consensus on this deeply technical but enormously important question. That's troubling.
Last spring the president said that Social Security faced an emergency of catastrophic proportions and that large cuts in benefits were needed immediately. A lot of Democrats replied that he was overdrawing the crisis in order to balance the 1984 budget by building up a big, unneeded surplus in the trust funds. Last Thursday in his television address, the president again defended his proposals, but said he wasn't going to press the point.
The task of safeguarding Social Security will now be turned over to yet another commission, this one with members selected in equal number by the president, the Republican Senate and the Democratic House. Where does that leave Social Security? While the benefit cuts voted last summer help somewhat, the system is still in a precarious position.
The president reminded Congress that its own bipartisan authority, Congressional Budget Office director Alice Rivlin, had said last week that a reasonably favorable economy would get the system through the decade with only a little borrowing among its funds, but that anything like a continuation of the sluggish conditions of recent years would put it in the red by 1985. That doesn't mean the system would close down like a bankrupt shoe store -- payroll taxes would still flow in and checks would be written. But unless new sources of revenue were found, benefits would have to be cut abruptly-- something that shouldn't be risked.
The administration's decision to seek a bipartisan consensus on any further Social Security cuts is partly a recognition of Congress' vast reluctance to do anything now beyond the two measures the president endorsed in his speech--authorizing the needed interfund borrowing and restoring the minimum benefits now paid many people with relatively low incomes. But it is also a welcome recognition that substantial permanent changes in our most important social program should not be made without the assurance that a solid majority of the people affected --that's almost everyone--agrees.
A full retreat in search of a political consensus is not, however, without its real costs. One is that if the economy doesn't perk up quickly, Social Security may be in real short-term trouble by the time agreement is reached. This would mean that much deeper and more abrupt changes would then be needed than if the Congress had decided now on some relatively modest adjustments, such as a one- time delay in cost-of-living increases. Delay also means that in order to balance the budget by 1984 --a goal the president reaffirmed in no uncertain terms--savings of $75 billion or more in addition to those announced last Thursday will have to come entirely from other programs. That won't be easy.