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Full steam ahead on Social Security reform!

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted February 7, 2005

The President has been around the country selling his proposal for Social Security. He plans more travel. He will need it. Let me say at the outset that I am militantly in favor of his Social Security program. I am too old to benefit from it but my children and grandchildren should get a better deal than their Mother and I look forward to.

The Democrats are picturing this as some sort of roulette. Yes, it is true the market has ups and downs. If you need the money in the near term it is not a sure bet. But taken on average over a decade, even during the Great Depression, the stock market produces a greater rate of return than virtually any other vehicle. For the program to work workers would need to be able to choose between several competing plans, which would contain a package of several relatively safe investments. Even I would not advocate workers being able to "invest" in get-rich quick schemes.

Bush speaks during a 'Conversation on Strengthening Social Security' at the Robinson Center Auditorium in Little Rock, Arkansas on February 4
Bush speaks during a 'Conversation on Strengthening Social Security' at the Robinson Center Auditorium in Little Rock, Arkansas on February 4

Getting back to the President's efforts to pass measures, in his State of the Union address, George Bush indicated he is open to any good ideas from Democrats. He is not likely to get many. The Democrats, at least those in the Senate, have concluded that their best chance to return to controlling that body is to lay across the Social Security tracks. They want to stop any private account dead.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid said there is no crisis in Social Security. The President says there is a crisis. Guess who else believed there was a crisis in Social Security? A Democrat named Bill Clinton. And guess who said, at the time, he was open to considering private accounts? A Democrat named Bill Clinton. And guess who was not able to solve the Social Security crisis while he was President? Bingo! A Democrat named Bill Clinton.

The problem with Washington is that it is next to impossible to legislate any good idea. It is very easy to stop any good idea. That is because good ideas, by their nature, end up transferring power from those who have it to those who do not. Those who have it, of course, want to keep it. So they have learned every trick of delay and destruction there is. Republicans, beginning a quarter of a century ago with Ronald Reagan, became the Party of new ideas. This was a decade and a half after the Great Society, which was the last period in which the Democrats seemed to be the innovators. The problem for them was their ideas didn't work. So by the time Reagan was running for the Presidency in 1980 he was able to say: "Government is not the solution. Government is the problem." From Reagan's tax cuts in 1981, to his marginal rate reduction of 1986, to various forms of deregulation, to the advocacy of abstinence, Republicans became the Party of innovation. While we remember Reagan for his bigger accomplishments, the fact is a great deal of what that President proposed in his eight years in office never saw the light of day. That is because the President had only a slim margin of Republican control of the U.S. Senate during his first six years in office, while the Democrats controlled the House the entire time Reagan was President and controlled the Senate as well during Reagan's last two years in office.

The Democrats figured out it was in their best interest to kill most of the President's initiatives, lest they be permanently out of power. The deregulation of the broadcast industry alone brought us talk radio as we know it. Think of where we would be without talk radio.

That is precisely what the fight concerning Social Security is all about. The President has proposed a reform of the system which will absolutely shift the political dynamic away from government and toward the individual. The Democrats see this as life-threatening. So what are they up to? First, they are denying that there is a Social Security crisis. Harry Reid says we don't have to lift a finger and Social Security will still pay out full benefits 50 years from now. The President points out that in just a very few years the Social Security surplus will end and thereafter there will be less inflow of dollars than outflow. There will be just two workers contributing for every one worker receiving benefits.

Whether the President will be able to get this key component of his second term program passed will depend on two things. First, the President and not Harry Reid has to be successful on the question of whether or not there is a crisis in Social Security. If the President prevails on that question and the public buys the idea that there is a crisis the public will be open to solutions. Second, younger people, who are already convinced, by and large, that private accounts would benefit them, must get politically active on the subject.

Younger voters tend not to be activist because a) they often don't know how to be an activist; b) if they are single they are usually too busy having a good time to bother; c) if they are married but going to school they are too tied up with college and perhaps part-time work to take the time to do something on an issue like this; d) if they are married with children they are struggling financially to make ends meet and they don't have time for politics; and e) they just don't take an interest in the issues of our day. That must change.

The Republican Party, over and above the President, is going to have to run the equivalent of a political campaign to recruit and train younger voters to demand that Congress pass the President's plan.

The Democrats and some older voters (such as the AARP) are going to be flooding Congressional offices to tell them to vote "no" on private accounts for Social Security. They will have the easier time of it because when a politician votes "no" he usually is not held accountable for what happens to the program. If he votes "yes" he is often held accountable. So when there is doubt, it is easier to say no.

This is so important for the future of the nation that all of us who believe as we do must help the President to educate Americans that the crisis is real. Then we must activate all the young people we know. My own five children are going to hear about this, I assure you. We owe it to them and they owe it to themselves and their children to be sure they take the time out of their incredibly busy schedules to participate in the political process to make this happen. It is a tall order. It will take every part of the President's Coalition working together to give it a chance. What are we waiting for?

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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