Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Time to Leave the Table


Time to Leave the Table

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, May 3, 2005; A21

There is a name for those who continue to sit at a gambling table even after they learn that the game is fixed. They are called fools.

Now that President Bush has proposed Social Security benefit cuts through "progressive indexing," his critics are said to have an obligation to negotiate in good faith to achieve a solution. There are just two problems with that sentence: The words "good faith" and "solution."

Bush's "plan" is still not a plan, just a few ideas. If the president is serious, let him first persuade members of his own party to agree to a detailed proposal so everyone knows what the trade-offs are. If what he has in mind is a good idea, Republicans will be eager to sign on. And if Bush can't get Republicans to go along, might that say something about the merits of his suggestions?

Opponents of Bush's cut-and-privatize project -- they include not only Democrats but also skeptical Republicans -- do have a responsibility. Their task is to subject half-baked concepts to the criticism they deserve and insist that they be fully baked before serious discussions can begin. Social Security, the most successful government program in our history, should not be overturned lightly.

That the president is fixing the Social Security reform game should be obvious. The most basic corruption of the process is the way the Republican congressional leadership has transformed the bargaining that once took place between the House and the Senate.

In the old days, when each house produced different versions of the same bill, a "conference" committee typically including members of both parties from both houses would thrash out the details and reach a compromise. Now the Republicans will concede whatever is necessary to get a bill out of the Senate, even as the lockstep-Republican House produces a right-wing version of the same proposal. In conferences, Republicans routinely freeze out all but the most pliable Democrats. The supposed "compromise" that emerges is not a compromise at all. Democrats who go along become enablers of a game being played with a stacked deck.

The game is also fixed because the president has narrowed the range of Social Security options to protect his most questionable policy choices.

Some press reports have suggested that Bush's willingness to cut Social Security benefits for the wealthy turned him into some latter-day Karl Marx, or at least Ted Kennedy.

This is nonsense.

Bush has refused to put his own tax cuts on the table as part of a Social Security fix. Repealing Bush's tax cuts for those earning more than $350,000 a year could cover all or most of the 75-year Social Security shortfall. Keeping part of the estate tax in place could cover a quarter to half of the shortfall. Some of the hole could be filled in by a modest surtax on dividends or capital gains.

But Bush is resolute about protecting the interests of the truly rich by making sure that any taxes on wealth are ruled out of the game from the beginning. The Social Security cuts he is proposing for the wealthy are a pittance compared with the benefits they get from his tax cuts. The president is keeping his eye on what really matters to him.

The real costs of progressive indexing as currently conceived would be paid by middle-income earners -- those with incomes in the range of $35,000 to $60,000 a year.

Eventually, such earners would face benefit cuts of 20 to 30 percent from what they are promised under the current program. And it gets worse: Rising Medicare premiums are eating up an increasing share of middle-class Social Security checks. Even without the cuts, Social Security payments will, over time, barely cover an individual's Medicare costs.

Last, there are the trillions of dollars that Bush would have us borrow to cover the transition to the private accounts he wants to set up. It's far from clear that cutting future Social Security benefits for younger members of the middle class and saddling them with mounds of new indebtedness would make either them or the country better off. Anyone who is truly conservative might have a question or two about whether this "solution" is worse than the problem it is purportedly addressing.

Walking away from a rigged game is hard for some people, especially when those running it and the respected opinion-makers who support them insist that this time the game will truly be on the level. But, especially when the danger involves gambling away the future of Social Security, the truly responsible thing is to leave the table.