Don't play political football with Social Security reform

I don't know Joe Lieberman, the Democratic senator from Connecticut, but I've been intrigued by him ever since his unsuccessful run for the vice presidency in 2000.

I somehow could never connect with his presidential running mate, Al Gore. Mr. Gore was clearly immensely knowledgeable about the workings of government and could be quite amusing in small, private circles. But ideology aside, he seemed stiffly programmed and hectoring on the campaign platform. By contrast, Mr. Lieberman, although no comic cut-up, came across as warmer and more personable, the kind of fellow you could take to a basketball game confident that he wouldn't lecture all night.

A successful presidential candidate not only has to have sound policies; it helps if you like him, and I couldn't help feeling that if Lieberman, a centrist with cross-party appeal, had been the presidential candidate and Gore the vice presidential, the ticket might have been more effective.

Unlike some other unsuccessful candidates who find it difficult to adjust after defeat, Lieberman returned comfortably to the Senate, where he's been happily doing the people's business.

Now his centrism is causing him problems with his own party. As if his support of the war in Iraq were not enough, he is working with President Bush to reform Social Security. This, in the eyes of some fellow Democrats, is political treachery.

That is a very shortsighted position.

Let's get some facts right about this Social Security situation. Social Security is not in crisis. It is, however, a serious problem. Today's elderly are not at risk under the president system, but 30 years from now, the proportion of older Americans will be substantially larger vis-à-vis younger Americans. This is an actuarial fact, not surmise or speculation.

When today's younger generation reaches retirement age, if the present Social Security system is not enhanced, the benefits they receive will have to be reduced, because the money in the pot will not be sufficient to pay them at today's levels.

We could do nothing today and leave the next generation to its fate. That is hardly an honorable position. In fact, it is unconscionable.

Our legislators must step up to this problem, tempting though it might be from a political point of view to postpone the necessarily tough decisions. But it's bigger than politics, and that's why it is disappointing that some of Senator Lieberman's Democratic critics are flaying him - with some even talking up a "Dump Joe" campaign - because he's willing to work with Bush to find a solution.

Social Security reform should not be a political football, a cleverly orchestrated "defeat" for Bush if the Democrats manage to thwart it, or a "victory" for Bush if he can corral enough Republicans and Democrats to get it done. It is a misunderstood problem and the president is having a tough time making headway on it. There are doubts among Republicans and concerns among Democrats. But this is a national problem that demands bipartisan concentration. It is not a game for "winners" and "losers." The American people must be the winners.

The irony is that there are not yet any cast-in-concrete proposals to decide upon. Bush has said the problem should be tackled now rather than later, but he is open to suggestions about the solution.

His own idea is that Social Security participants should be able to have private investment accounts paid out of existing payroll taxes. Others propose that such private investment accounts should be supplements to Social Security rather than replacing parts of it. Still other suggestions would increase taxes for upper-income people or raise the age at which retirees get full Social Security benefits.

Utah Republican Sen. Robert Bennett, who is fast being recognized as one of the Senate's leading economics experts, is floating a proposal that envisages workers starting voluntary private investment accounts for a five-year period. If, after the five years, they determine the projects have been successful, they could allocate some of their payroll taxes into these accounts. There would also be a restructuring of benefits for future retirees, reducing initial benefits for those in the higher-income brackets while favoring those in the lower-income brackets. Explaining the proposal to me recently, Senator Bennett said he's been encouraged by some high officials in the Bush administration to pursue his plan.

Thus, proposals are varied. But the problem is real and the solution must be bipartisan.

John Hughes, a former editor of the Monitor, is editor and chief operating officer of the Deseret Morning News.

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