Social security's extra baggage

What a difference a few weeks can make. Remember a month or so ago when the American people wondered if the National Commission on Social Security Reform would end its squabbling and come up with a consensus? Well, the commission finally did, the recommendations have gone before Congress, and - lo and behold - the House Ways and Means Committee has now acted with what can only be called unusual dispatch in passing a reform bill. Given this pace it is not inconceivable that a measure could be on President Reagan's desk for signature by late spring.

Surely, lawmakers deserve commendation for moving on the issue so swiftly. The fact is, of course, that the issue need never have become so contentious in the first place, since there was broad agreement in Washington that steps had to be taken to resolve the social security system's short-term funding problem - namely, avoiding the cumulative deficit of between $150 billion and $200 billion expected for the remainder of the 1980s. That done, lawmakers could then have dealt with the longer-term demographic challenge - that the number of retired persons receiving benefits vs. workers supporting the system will jump sharply after the turn of the century as the baby boom generation reaches retirement. In now separating out the short-term and long-term problems, lawmakers are doing what should have been done all along.

The political priority for the moment, it would seem, is to adhere as closely as possible to the bipartisan recommendations of the social security commission, as committee members did by accelerating future payroll taxes, delaying for six months the cost-of-living increase pegged for July 1 of this year, and adding future federal workers to the system. But lawmakers should also consider avoiding side issues that could only prove to be bones of sharp disagreement down the road as the package reaches the full House and Senate. Thus, it must be questioned whether the Ways and Means Committee should have tacked on to the package additional nonrelated provisions that, among other things, extend unemployment benefits, hike benefit levels for recipients of supplemental security income, and sharply alter the way by which medicare hospital payments are made.

These additional provisions may have merit in themselves, although the medicare revisions remain controversial. Yet the medicare proposal that was advocated by the hospital industry passed the Ways and Means Committee without much study by lawmakers.

The point is that provisions such as these deserve consideration on their own and not as part of a long-overdue social security package. The full House would seem on best ground in removing them from the bill. What would hardly be welcomed by most Americans would be another anguished battle over whether or not lawmakers can meet their obligation to ensure the safety - and efficiency - of the social security system.

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