Pretty much everybody in Washington has stopped talking about Social Security. But not Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.).
Months ago, President Bush and Republicans toned down their pitch for changes to the retirement program as prospects for action in Congress this year grew bleak. Opponents stood down, and public attention shifted to Iraq, gasoline prices and the Supreme Court.
But Kingston, who as vice chairman of the House GOP caucus is the party's point man on the issue, continues to carry the torch. As a pair of town hall meetings Friday in south Georgia showed, it is a lonely job.
"I believe there's a problem" with Social Security, Kingston told 40 constituents assembled at South Georgia College. "Can we get agreement on that?"
Only a couple of hands went up.
"What about the cap" on wages? he asked, raising his hand to indicate he was taking a poll. "Should we lift that?"
Kingston, standing behind an arrangement of artificial daisies, continued. "What if we raised the tax on Social Security?"
"Should we raise the retirement age? Not one person? Come on, somebody?"
Indifference also greeted his questions about who supported Bush's plan for wage indexing and personal retirement accounts.
"Not one of y'all raised your hand to anything," he said finally. "Do you agree with me that it's Friday morning?"
This produced murmurs of agreement.
When Kingston did his early town hall meetings on Social Security, he drew protests from groups such as the AARP and the AFL-CIO, which oppose Bush's plan. Now he faces a different foe: indifference, produced by a belief that Social Security is a dead issue.
"We're having trouble with Social Security, getting Congress to have the courage to put it on the table," he told the day's second gathering, in Waycross, Ga.
Kingston is correct: Everyone knows that Social Security and Medicare are heading toward insolvency, and the pain will be worse if something is not done soon. But if Kingston, in a solidly Republican district, must work this hard to sell the plan to a group of seniors who wouldn't even be affected by the proposed changes, then prospects elsewhere in the country can't be good.
"People aren't talking about it," said Mark Hatfield, a state representative attending Kingston's event in Waycross. Social Security has "kind of been eclipsed by other issues."
Kingston's Social Security strategy -- poll-tested and endorsed by the GOP caucus -- is to use the Medicare prescription drug benefit as a sweetener to get people to trust Congress with Social Security proposals. Kingston called the Medicare legislation "a 50 percent reduction in prescription costs," and he sought to illustrate the savings in a PowerPoint presentation with a slide labeled "How much does Mable save?"
After administering that spoonful of sugar, he begged the crowd's indulgence to talk about Social Security for 15 minutes, then reduced his request to 10 minutes.
But when it came time for questions, the citizens were more animated about gasoline prices and illegal immigration. This time, they raised their hands for Kingston's polls: Just about everybody opposed lowering speed limits to save fuel, and nobody favored giving up their F-150 pickups.
To the surprise of Kingston, nobody mentioned Iraq -- until after the meeting, when a woman named Reagan Gibbs approached the congressman. She had lost her husband, Matthew, in Iraq on Aug. 3, and she wanted to know if she could have the flag that flew over the Capitol the day he died. Kingston hugged her, said he'd see what he could do, then hugged her again.
"Right now, the war is number one," said Leroy Carver, a party volunteer who arranged the meeting in Douglas. "Ninety percent of people in the area support the war, but they want us to win." Carver, calling Iraq "a bad time," said people support Bush, but "we don't always agree with the president." And it's much the same with gasoline prices, he said. "They blame the president and, really, Congress."
But Kingston is trying to convince colleagues and constituents that "we can't just abandon" Social Security legislation. To spur interest, he gives out Ronald Reagan sculptures to lawmakers who will hold a dozen town hall meetings on Social Security. "I think we could actually move something," he said. Has he convinced his colleagues? Kingston scrunched his face. "Not really," he said.
The aide carrying the PowerPoint presentation got a flat tire on the way to Waycross, so Kingston moved right into Social Security. "I've been convinced there's a problem with Social Security," he told the 70 constituents, most of them of Social Security age. Pitching Bush's plan to scale back future benefits by tying them to inflation rather than wages, Kingston again found the room still and quiet. "It's something we have to be honest with ourselves about," he said.
A questioner asked if the cost of the new prescription plan for Medicare would make its solvency problem as bad as Social Security's. Kingston agreed. "A dark cloud of debt is accumulating," he said.
It wasn't necessarily what they wanted to hear, but "we need to get in the habit of talking about it," the congressman said. "If I continue to represent you, I'll be back to talk more about Social Security and more about Medicare."