OH YEAH, SOCIAL SECURITY

Social Security reform has slipped way down the national agenda since Sept. 11. But it still can stir a political gale.

That was clear from the response to preliminary recommendations issued by President Bush's Social Security commission. The panel sketched out three ways to blend private, individual investment accounts into the present system. Retirees then would have the option of expanding their funds by owning stocks and bonds.

Such proposals cause a feeding frenzy for Democrats, who see any move toward privatization as a political windfall. Republicans can be painted as undermining the most cherished of New Deal programs.

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Republicans will probably prefer to shelve the idea until after elections next November, especially with the economy in the doldrums. A delay of a year or so is not cause for concern. It's well to remember that Social Security's solvency problems are forecast to peak around 2038. There's still plenty of time to do something to offset the coming strains. On the other hand, this is an issue that must not be postponed year after year.

The commission, which will issue final recommendations this month, is providing a needed framework for debating the key issue. The creation of individual investment accounts promises more money for many retirees. Moving toward such accounts, however, even on a voluntary basis, would come with high transitional costs. As funds are diverted to the new accounts, the government would still have to maintain its payout to present retirees. Meeting these costs could require cutbacks in future benefits, or shifting money from other programs.

The American public needs a thorough airing of these issues so elected representatives don't give a knee-jerk response to Social Security reform.

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