It would require the highest act of charity for the American public to put the best face on the work of the 15-member presidential commission on social security. Granted, after almost a year of deliberation the commission has managed to agree on the extent of the problem facing the beleaguered system - a financial shortfall of between $150 billion and $200 billion through the 1980s. Yet, despite time, study, and the airing of countless reform proposals, the commission seems unable to come up with a consensus agreement that could keep the issue from exploding into a political free-for-all in Congress next year.
If even a commission of experts cannot set aside its political differences for the good of the nation, how can the nation's elected officials be expected to do so? Can the American public help but become slightly cynical when the chairman of the presidential commission, economist Alan Greenspan, and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Robert Dole, have to go on national television (as they did this past weekend), and urge President Reagan and House Speaker O'Neill to work out a compromise between themselves so that the commission can then reach agreement by the day of its final meeting later this week?
The point is that there is still time for the commission to produce a consensus agreement that can avoid the political bickering that seems likely if no such compromise is struck. Indeed, the broad outlines of a consensus seem already evident from the commission's own work:
* Cutting back some future benefits. Such logical steps might well be along the lines of the consensus plan sought by commission member Alexander Trowbridge of the National Association of Manufacturers. He would seek a permanent three-month delay in the month that cost-of-living increases are granted - from July to October; also, he would link future benefit increases to wage increases, with an offset for productivity gains.
* Speeding up tax increases for social security already written into law. It is instructive that Mr. Trowbridge, as a businessman, would not be averse to a modest increase in payroll taxes as part of a compromise.
* Requiring federal workers to join the system.
* Gradually extending the standard retirement year for future beneficiaries. The age is now set at 65.
The commission has rightly estimated that the system's financial plight is serious. But that plight can hardly be looked upon as grave, in the sense that some newspaper and magazine headlines have observed of late, and some politicians eager for publicity would aver. Reforms will be required. But they need not be draconian for recipients or add up to a gutting of the system.
The members of the social security commission have had a unique opportunity to serve the American public. How much better it would be for all if they could take the few days left at their disposal, put aside partisan differences, and carry out the mandate given them. To do less would be not only disheartening but inexcusable.