Bush quiet on plan for private Social Security investments

President has described proposal as a priority for his second term

August 29, 2005|By Joel Havemann and Warren Vieth | Joel Havemann and Warren Vieth,LOS ANGELES TIMES

CRAWFORD, Texas - For presidents, the dog days of summer offer an opportunity to escape the Washington pressure cooker for some real vacation. The summer lull, when Congress slows down and then goes into recess, also enables a president to grab the spotlight and pitch favored proposals with less than the usual flak from political opponents.

This month, President Bush seized both opportunities. He has cut brush and ridden his bike in the relative seclusion of his 1,600-acre property. And he has made short trips around the country to talk about the war in Iraq and other policies, but he has been notably silent on a subject he pushed hard the first half of the year: his Social Security plan for creating private investment accounts.

In July and August, Bush has made one appearance to plug his Social Security proposal, which he has described as the top domestic priority of his second term. In the first six months of the year, by contrast, he made 36 appearances focused on restructuring Social Security - a dozen such events in March alone.

When Bush met with his economic advisers at his Texas ranch Aug. 9, Social Security was the last issue he raised, behind trade and tax overhauls, and medical malpractice and health care costs. In his July 30 radio address recounting legislative victories and the challenges ahead, he did not mention Social Security.

Similarly, when Social Security turned 70 Aug. 14, there was lavish recognition of the anniversary from people who would keep Social Security's guaranteed benefits pretty much as they are and from those who want to transform the program.

Bush confined himself to a two-sentence statement in which he vowed to "keep the promise of Social Security for future generations."

Democrats have been quick to conclude that the lack of presidential attention to the private accounts reflects what they say is the chilly response from Congress and the public to his plan. And they have seized on the opportunity to trumpet their defense of the present system.

"As we celebrate Social Security's 70th birthday, Democrats renew our commitment to its founding principles and protect it from the disastrous Bush privatization plan," Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said in marking the anniversary of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's signing Social Security into law.

Some of the most outspoken champions of individual Social Security accounts feel that Bush has abandoned them. Especially unhappy are some of those who have proposed getting the accounts started with the more than $2 trillion in surplus Social Security tax revenue that is expected to accumulate before annual payouts overtake payroll tax revenue in 2017.

"I'm disappointed that the president hasn't seen this as a realistic start to solving the Social Security problem," said Larry Hunter, a senior economist with FreedomWorks who helped develop the proposal for starting individual accounts. "I think the White House has missed a huge opportunity."

Hunter is particularly disturbed that Ben S. Bernanke, the chairman of Bush's Council of Economic Advisers, emphasized in a session with reporters last month that any Social Security legislation should include not only individual accounts, but also guarantee the program's solvency. In Hunter's view, "solvency" is a euphemism for benefit cuts or tax increases, and he says neither will be necessary to guarantee future retirees their full promised benefits - thanks to the boost he expects the economy to get when workers start saving money in individual accounts.

But members of the Bush administration insist he has not given up. "The president is totally committed to Social Security reform," Al Hubbard, director of the National Economic Council, said after Bush met with his economic advisers.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the lull merely reflected the congressional recess, which ends Sept. 6. "This is one of our priorities when Congress returns," he said.

Heritage Foundation analyst William W. Beach, also a proponent of individual accounts, said it was reasonable for the White House to scale back its campaign. "There's a limit to how many times you can go out and make your pitch before it becomes so dull and repetitive," Beach said. "I suspect they feel like they're almost there."

And Sen. Jim DeMint, a South Carolina Republican, the chief congressional author of legislation to finance individual accounts out of surplus payroll tax revenue, said the White House was silently in favor of his bill. "I think we're in a pretty good spot," DeMint said.

Just before beginning its August recess, Congress cleared a number of major items, including the highway and energy bills, and the Central American Free Trade Agreement.

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