One of President Reagan's bravest hours was his effort to begin reform of the social security system. He has an opportunity in his budget speech tonight to show the American people that he has not joined the bipartisan congressional retreat from that goal. Strong leadership is needed to keep his pledge of protection for those dependent on social security. It is for their sake -- on into a future of increasing funding burdens -- that the task needs to be started now.
Mr. Reagan's test tonight will arise whether or not he sticks with the specific budget-cutting idea of postponing a cost of-of-living increase for three months. It will lie in whether he takes the occasion to revive the impetus toward full rethinking of social security for which his whole shaking up of the federal government has provided the most likely opening in years.
This rethinking -- and any overhaul to which it leads -- should be undertaken in and of itself, as a free-standing problem, in the phrase of one of Mr. Reagan's conservative congressional supporters.
Social security is too important to toy with in last-minute budgetary politicking, as some in Congress appear all too willing to do. Yet its massive potential drain on government funds makes it a natural part of a presidential address on the budget. Though Mr. Reagan's first attack on the problem was immediately labeled a political mistake, it would be a historical mistake for him to abandon the battle. If he is to be deterred by conventional political wisdom, it will only become harder and harder to address the situation as next year's elections loom and the threshold of 1984 is reached.
For all the controversy over the original Reagan social security package, it did get the mule's attention. Indeed, until the Democrats recently decided to hang back and let reluctant Republicans get out front if they so chose, bipartisan reform efforts were going forward. Now there is talk of making do by shifting funds from one pocket to another within the system, which the Congressional Budget Office says could keep the checks in the mail for another ten years -- if the economy cooperatives.
Meanwhile, the proportion of taxpaying workers is falling in relation to eligible recipients. The net burden on the workers may be eased as smaller families mean fewer young dependents at the same time the older population is growing. But the challenge to develop more than stopgap solutions is evident.
The immediate challenge to Mr. Reagan is not to choose among proposed remedies that include: raising the eligibility age; taxing benefits, on the theory that those wholly dependent on them would not reach a taxable income level; funding medicare from general revenues; basing individual benefits on individual contributions, with a floor for those in need met from general revenues; replacing the whole system with a general revenue welfare system; replacing all of the above with a guaranteed annual income. The challenge is to keep the pressure on for considering alternatives and reaching conclusions before no one will be able to keep a pledge of protecting dependent retirees.