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Social Security

Mr. Gingrich on Social Security

Monday, April 6, 1998; Page A24

In the name of saving Social Security, House Speaker Newt Gingrich has embraced and seeks to array his party behind a proposal that he well understands and intends would lead to the partial "privatization" and dismantling of the program instead. He advocates that whatever budget surpluses materialize in the years ahead be "returned to the American people" in the form of tax cuts. The proceeds would be put in retirement accounts, invested and set aside for the recipients' older age, as supplements to Social Security. What better, tidier way to fulfill the president's injunction that the budget surplus be used to shore up Social Security rather than for other purposes? And "this plan will not cut a single person's Social Security benefits, now or ever," the speaker testified the other day.

But that's not true, and the implications for benefits are the part of the plan Mr. Gingrich seems not to want to discuss – not up front, anyway. First, the tax cut, which could amount to as much as $671 billion over the next 10 years, he estimated the other day. Then will be time enough – next year, safely after the election – to "work with the president" on "the most effective long-term reforms to the Social Security program," which the cuts would have helped to dictate.

These reforms, as the speaker envisions them, would involve continuing reliance on individual savings and investment decisions as distinct from government benefits. The diversion of funds into individual accounts wouldn't end with the budget surplus. To pay for it as the surplus disappeared, benefit levels would be reduced. Why not, with the accounts being there to act as cushions? Less of the responsibility for retirement income would be be borne by government, more by the retirees.

That's privatization. It's a huge and fateful step. Those who favor it do so for a variety of reasons, from ideological to economic. The better-off would be better able to absorb the greater risk involved. But the issue isn't what happens to them; it's what happens, if the government guarantees are reduced, to the mass of lower-income elderly people to whom those guarantees are the standard of living. The speaker seems blithe about that. To propose that the country start down a path that will force cuts in this most basic of social insurance programs without having counted the consequences – while suggesting even that there may not be any – is reckless. The right way to go about saving Social Security until a consensus develops about its future is the neutral one the president has proposed, of strengthening the government's ability to meet its future obligations by using the budget surplus to pay down the debt.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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