Saturday, June 09, 2007

Quiet Discussions of Social Security Reform

An article posted yesterday to by Nina Easton reports on some quiet policy discussions about Social Security reform between two unlikely but well placed collaborators:

WASHINGTON (Fortune) -- Picture this: A rotund, theatrical politician from Harlem and a wiry, introverted policy-wonk from Shreveport sitting elbow to elbow on the House floor, shuffling between each other's offices, passing paper between staffs. Two men from opposite ends of the political spectrum, they are joined in secrecy on a project that just about everyone else in Washington considers doomed to failure. Charlie Rangel and Jim McCrery are on a mission to rescue Social Security from bankruptcy.

Conventional Washington wisdom long ago wrote the death notice on Social Security reform. What Republican would want to touch a project that blew up in George Bush's face just two years ago? What Democrat would risk frightening senior citizens when party leaders are hoping they'll be passing out tickets for Inaugural Day, 2009?

But McCrery, a conservative, and Rangel, a liberal, are willing to take the heat because they actually believe in the old-fashioned notion that if lawmakers offer serious solutions to serious problems, Congress' miserably low standing in public opinion doesn't have to be permanent. "I think it's important for the institution to reform Social Security," McCrery tells Fortune. "The public's opinion of the federal government right now is as low as it's ever been in my lifetime. And that's dangerous, because we have big problems to solve. And if we don't have political capital with the public, we can't solve those problems. We need public support to solve Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, healthcare." "Social Security is the easiest one, so let's start there," he adds. "Let's build some capital and show we can work together, and get big things done."

The Rangel-McCrery conspiracy matters only because these two men are, respectively, the Democratic chairman and the ranking GOP member of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, ground zero for matters ranging from tax and trade policy to entitlement reform. Quietly, and over the course of the past three months, the two men have been meeting alone and with staff to hammer out a compromise plan. "We're not there yet," says Rangel, even as he makes clear - as a self-described "old poker player from Harlem" - that he's betting on a breakthrough.
The article goes on to reference the demise of the immigration bill as a cautionary tale for this sort of left-right pairing of legislators on big issues. But because of their status on the Ways and Means Committee, this is the pair that would have to get the process started. Let's hope they get a good foundation for the bill, with the opportunity for the rest of the legislators to do their jobs as well.


Anonymous said...

Repeat after me - social security does not need saving.

Margaret Bartley said...

I can't spend huge amounts of time on issues, but I was actively trying to get some basic information a few years ago, when Bush was beating the drum for privatization. I could not find out simple things about Social Security:

1) How much money now, and in the future, is spent on retirement payments, and how much on disability payments? (absolute, and percentage)

2) Who are getting those disability payments? How many of them are for people who have actually paid into the system?

3) With the proposed Guest Worker programs, which exclude Guest Workers' earnings from being paid into the U.S. Social Security Trust Fund, how many workers (both absolute numbers, and percentages) will be paying into Social Security in the future decades?

4) What is the current balance of the US Social Security Trust Fund?

We could use a simple spreadsheet, by year, of the anticipated numbers of people and dollars going in to the system, and coming out. This would include the number and dollar amounts of retirement payments, disability payments to people who had paid in, and disability payments to people who did not pay in.

You can see where I am going.

There is much more to the discussion than just the age demographics and tax rates. It is also a discussion of the kinds of situations Social Security will take care of.

Should we be giving Social Security Disability to people who've never worked? (I'm not talking about dependents' income after their parents died; I'm talking about disability checks going to parents of kids with disabilities, or immigrants who bring in their aged parents and put them on Social Security Disability.)

Should American companies be able to hire guest workers, and avoid paying into the U.S. Social Security system?

In my opinion, unless these issues are addressed in a clear and forthright manner, I will continue to assume our elected officials are trying to pull a fast one on us.

Andrew Samwick said...

Most of your questions about numbers can be found at the Social Security Administration's website where the annual Trustees Reports are presented. Consider these tables. The first three (IV.B1-3) and V.C6 seem most relevant.

For DI, eligibility criteria are given here. You need a work history.

The status of guest workers is usually determined by "totalization" agreements with the home country. They are listed here. The critical one with Mexico has been signed but has not been passed by the relevant legislatures.

I hope this helps.