Cleveland Plain Dealer: ‘Social Security becoming issue in fall elections’

Social Security becoming issue in fall elections

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Elizabeth Auster

Plain Dealer Bureau

Washington -- President Bush's controversial plan to let workers use some of their Social Security taxes to create investment accounts may seem dead on Capitol Hill. But it's springing back to life on the campaign trail in Ohio.

With Bush and several other Republicans indicating recently that they'd like to reopen a debate on Social Security next year, Democrats are gearing up to raise the subject even earlier -- in time for this fall's elections in Ohio and other states where Republicans seem vulnerable.

Sparring over Social Security, long one of the most sensitive subjects in American politics, is already under way in two Ohio races that are being watched nationally: Republican Sen. Mike DeWine's bid for a third term and the re-election fight of Rep. Deborah Pryce, the fourth highest-ranking member of the House GOP leadership.

"If George Bush gets enough votes in the House and Senate, his No. 1 priority again will be privatizing Social Security," warned Democratic Rep. Sherrod Brown of Avon, who is challenging DeWine. "And Mike DeWine, as he always is on every major issue, will be right there with him if he's re-elected."

In Pryce's Columbus-area district and four other states, a labor-backed group began broadcasting TV commercials this month warning of big cuts to Social Security if Bush's plan succeeds. Jeremy Funk, a spokesman for the group, Americans United, said that more commercials are planned and that both DeWine and Pryce will be targets.

Democrats say their efforts to get voters to focus on the issue have been helped unexpectedly by a series of recent comments by top Republican officials. Bush vowed in late June that he won't give up his efforts to get Congress to focus on Social Security's finances, and House Majority Leader John Boehner told The Washington Times last month that he plans to "get serious" about reforming Social Security next January.

Other administration officials have said recently that they hope to confront financial problems facing Social Security and Medicare before Bush leaves office.

Democrats, who call Bush's plan an effort to "privatize" Social Security, have seized on those statements to warn that the 2006 elections could be crucial for the program.

"The future of Social Security as we know it depends on the outcome of the 2006 elections," New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez said in a recent conference call with news media.

Social Security tinkering

is risky politics

Changing Social Security has long been considered treacherous terrain for politicians because the program is enormously popular among the elderly, who tend to vote in higher numbers than other age groups. As a result, politicians usually try to avoid the issue in election years. But Bush's high-profile effort last year to promote an overhaul of Social Security, and his failure to win much support from either the public or Congress, has made the subject particularly sensitive this year for Republicans.

In interviews this week, DeWine and a spokesman for Pryce insisted that they oppose any effort to privatize Social Security.

"I'm not for privatization of Social Security. That's absolutely not true," DeWine said in response to Brown's comments. "I'm not going to vote for any proposal that would threaten the current system."

George Rasley, a spokesman for Pryce's campaign, said she is "adamantly opposed to privatization."

DeWine pointed out that he never endorsed Bush's plan and voiced concerns from the start about how it would be financed. Asked directly this week if he supports Bush's plan, DeWine said: "No. I've not seen how we would be able to pay for that."

Brown argues, however, that while DeWine never endorsed Bush's plan, he also didn't speak out strongly against it and has previously expressed support for letting workers direct Social Security taxes into an investment account. Brown pointed to a 2000 survey by the libertarian Cato Institute that asked lawmakers if they favored letting workers set aside part of their Social Security taxes in a personal retirement account. DeWine told Cato he favored the idea.

Asked about the survey, DeWine said he could see supporting a compromise with Democrats that would allow workers to set up voluntary investment accounts for retirement outside the Social Security system. He maintained that his support for such an idea isn't "inconsistent at all" with his response to Cato.

Brown said he thinks voters will see a large difference between his stance and DeWine's.

"When Bush came out with privatization, I said no, over my dead body," Brown said. "Mike DeWine, as he usually does, he sort of sat there quietly and said I don't know. . . . He committed in the 2000 campaign that he would be for privatization. Just because he was doing a little bit of a dance last year doesn't mean that he's not going to be there when the president needs him."

Pryce, meanwhile, is trying to blunt accusations by her Democratic opponent, Franklin County Commissioner Mary Jo Kilroy, that she played a leading role in trying to sell Bush's plan last year as a member of the House GOP leadership. Pryce signed a strategy document advising GOP lawmakers how to frame arguments that could convince constituents of the benefits of Bush's plan.

Rasley, asked about Pryce's role, said she has no interest in reviving Bush's proposal because of the negative reaction it got last year from Democrats.

"She does not believe it would be productive to bring this back until such time as there is a bipartisan will in both the Senate and the House to develop a solution," he said.

Democrats wrestle

with issue, as well

While Republicans struggle to distance themselves from Bush's plan, Democrats also could face a challenge if voters start focusing on Social Security because lawmakers from both parties seem uncomfortable when pressed on how they would adjust the program to cope with the looming retirement of baby boomers. Social Security's trustees predict the program will begin collecting less money in taxes than it needs to pay out benefits in 2017.

Both Brown and DeWine say they think Democrats and Republicans will have to devise a bipartisan solution to fix Social Security's finances. Neither, however, wanted to discuss many details about what sort of changes they would support.

Brown said his first move would be to cancel Bush's tax cuts on the top 5 percent of earners. Beyond that, he said, he is leery of discussing specifics like raising Social Security taxes or cutting benefits but thinks "everything is on the table."

Asked if he is open to raising the retirement age, he said: "I don't know what I would say about that yet. You're not going to pin me down on retirement age. I don't know."

DeWine also balked at getting into specifics. Asked if he would be open to raising taxes, cutting benefits or raising the retirement age, he said: "Each one of these, you have to look at who's affected and what type of person you're talking about. Generalizations are not going to be very helpful in this debate."

Both Brown and DeWine did rule out at least one alternative each, however.

DeWine said he would rule out higher Social Security payroll taxes "on the average working person" -- leaving open the possibility that he'd consider higher payroll taxes for higher earners.

Brown ruled out supporting any investment accounts as part of a Social Security reform package -- even as an addition to traditional benefits.

To reach this Plain Dealer reporter:, 216-999-4212