REP. JIM WRIGHT of Texas, the House majority leader, offered a few suggestions last weekend for the rescue of Social Security. They illustrate the reasons why most people aren't taking the congressional Democrats' pronouncements on the subject very seriously.
It's true that Mr. Wright offered these thoughts while being interviewed on "Meet the Press," and it's difficult to discern from the context whether he had given any of them more than two minutes' previous thought. They have the air of spur-of-the- moment inspirations, and they would hardly be worth noting if they did not reflect so clearly the same message as much of the Democrats' current commentary on Social Security. The general idea is that a few painless adjustments here and there can set things right. As most Americans have come to realize by this time, it's not going to be quite so easy.
All of Mr. Wright's suggestions have one thing in common. They would mean using general funds -- money from all the other tax sources -- to supplement that payroll tax that is now insufficient to pay for the present Social Security benefits. One of Mr. Wright's proposals is to subsidize the incomes of people of retirement age, with tax credits up to $2,000 a year, to keep them working and off Social Security. Where does the $2,000 come from? The government is already running dramatically large deficits, and shifting inadequate funds around from one pocket to another is not terribly helpful.
Another (and worse) suggestion is to earmark the revenue from offshore oil leases for Social Security. Offshore revenues bounce up and down with the vicissitudes of the oil business; they are precisely the kind of unstable source that should never be used for pensions. As for new funds, Mr. Wright thought that the American taxpayer might tolerate another 50 cents a gallon on the liquor tax, to be permanently dedicated to the Social Security Trust Fund.
The Social Security shortfall has a simple explanation. Congress greatly increased the benefits in the late 1960s and early 1970s, on the assumption that the rapid economic growth of that period would continue steadily. But that assumption has failed, leaving the prospect of a rapidly widening gap between Social Security taxes coming in and benefits going out. That is the formidable reality with which the special commission headed by Alan Greenspan is now coming to terms. Whether its recommendations next month actually lead to useful legislation depends on the legislators, among whom Mr. Wright is a major figure, and whether they are willing to approach the subject seriously. A sincere smile and another 50 cents on a jug of whiskey won't quite be enough.