WASHINGTON — If President Bush wants to push his plan to overhaul Social Security through Congress during his second term, he will probably have to do something he rarely did during his first term: get his hands dirty.
To revamp the politically popular retirement program, many allies say, Bush will have to offer detailed proposals to Congress and engage in a broad public campaign to justify the change and its cost. That would be a big change in the way Bush deals with Congress. Typically, Bush has conveyed only broad goals and principles and left it to Congress’ Republican leaders to work out details. Social Security will be different, Republicans say, because Bush’s heart is unquestionably in the issue. He has made clear that it is his top domestic priority. At issue is the long-term financial stability of Social Security, the retirement program funded through payroll taxes, which will be strained when the Baby Boom begins to retire. As soon as 2019, the program will pay out more in benefits than it collects in taxes. By 2052, the program’s trust fund is projected to have exhausted its surplus.
Bush argues that the best way to shore up the program is to give younger workers the option of using part of their payroll taxes to invest in private accounts. Critics say it would expose retirees to greater risk by “privatizing” one of the government’s most successful programs.
To get such changes through Congress, Bush will first have to persuade lawmakers and the public that the need to change the program is urgent — even though its problems will not come to a head for decades to come. His allies argue that the longer Congress waits to fix the program, the more painful will be the solutions.
The White House and its Republicans allies argue that initial costs are more like an investment than an expenditure and will be more than outweighed by the long-term savings that will accrue from shoring up the system.
“We’ve got to think of this the way you think about maintaining your car: You schedule the maintenance to avoid a massively more expensive engine repair later,” said White House spokesman Trent Duffy.
Supporters of private accounts disagree over crucial questions such as how large the accounts should be and how to handle the cost of the transition to the new system.
Private-account advocates are also divided over how to handle the transition costs arising from Bush’s promise that benefits would remain unchanged for current retirees and those near retirement. Every dollar diverted to younger workers’ private accounts would not be available to pay promised benefits to retirees and older workers. The gap is estimated at $1 trillion to $2 trillion over 10 years.
But while Bush has acknowledged that there will be costs to changing Social Security, he has not said how or by whom those costs will be borne. Some of his allies say he will soon have to say more to prepare the public.