The biggest, most successful government program of all time is also the most politically dangerous. "Social Security is the third rail of American politics. You touch it and you die." My cousin Kirk O'Donnell was the first to speak those words twenty years ago, when he was counsel to the Democratic Speaker of the House, Tip O'Neill. So perfect and economical a summary of the politics of Social Security, the "third rail" line has been repeated thousands of times since by every stripe of politician and pundit. The abject fear that the line both described and provoked within the political class still holds. "Of the 537 federal elected officials," says Democratic senator Bob Kerrey, "only 30 of us have put our names on Social Security-reform legislation."
Having plunged his campaign into the dangerous specifics of tax cuts, education reforms, and, last week, health-care reform, George W. Bush is now secretly considering the biggest campaign risk of all -- getting specific on Social Security reform. He wants to meet with congressional supporters of reform, preferably from both parties, and his handlers are trying to figure out when, where, and how to do it. When he reads this, Al Gore will surely work the phone trying to make sure no Democrats attend so that he will have an easier time condemning whatever Bush might propose on Social Security.
Last year, the Social Security Administration wrote benefit checks in the amount of almost $400 billion, one fourth of the budget of the United States of America. Social Security is steadily en route to bankruptcy in exactly 37 years, when 81 million baby-boomers will be eagerly opening their Social Security mail. Running for president like Al Gore, with campaign-finance reform as your top priority, or like Bush, with education as your top priority, is like running for president of Time Warner with improving the story lines on the WB network as your top priority. The federal government currently supplies about 7 cents of every dollar spent on public education. Both Gore and Bush want to increase that -- Bush by a negligible amount and Gore by a couple of pennies. To vote for either of them based on what he will do for public schools is to not understand what job they are running for.
Campaign-finance reform would have no significant effect on the governance or the budget of the United States. Even if they could no longer contribute unlimited amounts of soft money to the two political parties, corporate interests would still fly to Washington in Lears and Gulfstreams and be led into the inner chambers of government by hugely expensive lobbyists who used to work as congressmen, senators, or staff members, and who gain entry to it now more by friendships than by campaign contributions. General Motors would still have a much easier time getting in to see the Michigan congressional delegation than you would. Citibank and Kodak would still employ many more New Yorkers than you do, and on that basis alone would continue to command the attention of the New York delegation.
Press releases say "Al Gore will save Social Security." But Social Security has been headed toward bankruptcy every day of the Clinton administration, which has never proposed any legislation to save it.
New Jersey senators would still leave the door open for the giant pharmaceutical companies, and Kentucky's senators would still be ready to filibuster anything that really scared the tobacco companies. The Sierra Club would still want cleaner air and water, would lobby relentlessly for it, and would be followed every step of the way by lobbyists for companies that would find environmental restrictions on the way they do business too burdensome. Campaign-finance reform would not significantly reduce the influence of special interests, and it would not reduce by one minute the amount of time elected officials spend on fund-raising instead of governing; it would actually increase that time, because it would make fund-raising just a bit more difficult. To vote for Gore because he favors more campaign-finance reform than Bush is to reward the vice-president for coming up with a plan that will do you absolutely no good while allowing him to get away with not even proposing a plan to save Social Security, the government's most important program, the program that takes money directly out of your paycheck in fica taxes and promises to give it back to you when you need it -- a promise that cannot be kept for most people paying into the system today.
In the face of a Social Security crisis, to be running for president on any other issue is what magicians call misdirection. "As president," according to Gore press releases, "Al Gore will save Social Security." The first thing Bush should say about Social Security is how odd it is that the program needs saving after eight years of Clinton-Gore harping on how much damage Republicans would do to Social Security if they took back the White House. Social Security has been headed toward bankruptcy every day of the Clinton administration, and the administration has never proposed any legislation to save it.
Candidate Gore favors the Clinton idea of using money from the general budget surplus to help finance Social Security. This would simply postpone the date when Social Security goes belly-up by as many as twelve years.The only way to guarantee Social Security's solvency is to reduce benefits or increase fica taxes or a little of both. The bill Kerrey and Moynihan support actually cuts the fica tax for the next 30 years, then starts to raise it in 2034 from 12.4 percent to 13.7 percent by 2060. Moynihan's bill would shave the annual increase in Social Security benefits, but it would allow us the option of directing a portion of our fica tax into private investment accounts. The theory is that growth in the private accounts would more than make up for the lower benefit increases.
Since any real reforms (other than simply raising fica taxes sky high) leaves you open to the accusation that you are cutting benefits, Gore always opposes them. Like most Republicans, Bush is open to the idea of private investment accounts but has offered no specifics. While Bush at least acknowledges the system needs fixing, Gore's only Social Security announcement thus far was a recent proposal to actually increase benefits for people whose spouses have died and stay-at-home parents. This was greeted with silent fury by most congressional reformers, who see it as pandering. Saying they can afford to add another benefit without doing a full package of reform just makes the reform effort much more difficult politically." Moynihan worries that his party seems more interested in using Social Security as a weapon than in fixing it. "It may win us the next two elections," he says sadly.