Saving social security: time runs short on wary Congress

Every minute that goes by, America's social security is paying out $17,000 more than it takes in.

As the dollars drain away, the deadline for fixing the troubled system draws closer. Yet Congress sits on its hands, leery of dealing with the politically sensitive problem. Once the November elections have passed, and the President's National Commission on Social Security Reform has delivered its report, a reluctant Congress will find social security the top item on its agenda.

''Everybody's been using the National Commission for political cover,'' says a congressional aide widely respected for knowledge of social security's problems. ''But after the elections, Congress sure has got to move quickly.''

It is too early to predict what, specifically, the commission will recommend. Possible changes in the way benefits are adjusted to account for cost-of-living increases have received close attention. But one proposal that was seriously considered - adjusting benefits for the rise in wages, minus 1.5 percent - has lost favor, according to those familiar with the panel's meetings.

The panel is also weighing a gradual increase in the retirement age, bringing government workers into the system, and various alternatives for the short term, such as an extension of interfund borrowing power.

But a consensus among the members has not yet formed.

''Things seem to be on hold to a considerable degree,'' says Dr. Merton Bernstein, principal consultant to the commission.

The 15-member, bipartisan panel is scheduled to start writing its report at a three-day meeting beginning Nov. 11, according to a commission source.

There is no question the commission will produce a report by its deadline. At issue is whether the panel's final vote on the package will split along partisan lines. There are eight Republicans and seven Democrats on the commission, and congressional sources fear that a divided vote would keep Congress itself from obtaining the bipartisan amity necessary to deal with the retirement system's problems. The result might be legislation to deal with social security's short-term cash flow crunch, without any attempt to address the system's long-term problems.

''If the commission has a split vote, say 10 to5, I don't know what their impact is going to be,'' says a knowledgeable congressional staffer.

Under current law, the Old Age and Survivor's Insurance (OASI) fund - largest of the system's three funds - will be unable by July 1983 to send out checks on time, according to Congressional Budget Office director Alice Rivlin's latest estimates. Though social security wouldn't ''go broke,'' beneficiaries would find their checks arriving later and later each month.

The recently passed tax bill, by capping some medicare payments, helped ease the cash-flow crunch of another trust fund - Hospital Insurance (HI). Yet, since social security's authority to switch money among its three funds expires at the end of this year, the HI savings can't be used to shore up its shakier compatriot, OASI.

Social security's problems ''must be resolved in the near future,'' Dr. Rivlin told the Aug. 20 meeting of the National Commission on Social Security Reform.

The forum Congress uses to address the problem, and the solutions it considers, will depend not only on the national commission's findings. It also will depend on whether President Reagan calls a special congressional session to consider social security. This decision, in turn, will hinge on the outcome of the November elections, and whether House and Senate leaders of both parties support the move.

Sen. Bob Dole (R) of Kansas, flushed with success from shepherding his tax increase bill through Congress, said Sept. 1 that he had written the President and the congressional leadership, urging them to support a postelection special session on social security. Only at such an unpolitical time, said Senator Dole, would Congress be able to draw up social security legislation with ''enough of a bipartisan flavor'' to pass.

Lawmakers did not greet Dole's proposal with enthusiasm. Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr. (R) of Tennessee said he would prefer a special session beginning Jan. 3, instead of a postelection get-together. House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. (D) of Massachusetts rejected all notion of a special social security session. And Dole admits the White House has been telling him he shouldn't push the subject so hard.

''I don't think Dole's got much support,'' says a Republican congressional aide.

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