James Vesely / Times editorial page editor
Forum rage: the kickback to opening the safety net
If what I saw last week at Bellevue High is any indication, the reform plan to add private accounts to Social Security is a goner.
The school's auditorium was packed, and not even three panelists urging private accounts — but not agreeing exactly — could sway an organized and vocal opposition. People kept calling for more taxes to add to the Social Security pot.
"Is this good-old Republican Bellevue?" I asked from the moderator's podium.
"Not anymore," came a shouted reply.
When I issued a disclaimer that the position of The Seattle Times Editorial Board does not support private accounts for Social Security, the place went up in applause.
A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showed support for private Social Security accounts dropping from 46 percent to 40 percent, and that was before the current congressional recess, where town hall meetings all over the country were a rallying point for opposition.
At Bellevue High, I detected advocacy groups from the disabled to the disgusted. What's going on here?
"It's the safety net," said Bellevue City Councilman Conrad Lee afterward. People see what's left of a safety net and are afraid it won't catch them when they fall. That's part of it, but something else is going on here, something to make this proposal as cooked as a baked brie in Bellevue.
Congressman David Reichert, R-Auburn, who convened this town hall and asked me to moderate the hockey game that ensued, captured the divisiveness in his concluding remarks, when he asked the audience if they could not agree on one, simple, thing — to continue talking about Social Security. The audience was certainly not prepared to agree on much else — not the crisis year of Social Security, not its level of debt or surplus, not to keep its current tax cap of $90,000 of employment income, not anything.
Reichert was able to guard his flanks. I did not detect a predictable direction from him; he appears to be trying to figure this out, like everyone else. But it is clear that these town halls are really rallies for the status quo of Social Security. A Seattle Town Hall convocation Thursday was a Democrat's dream because it was put on by Democrat officeholders. It also lacked specific discussion about Social Security.
That's because neither major political party has been willing to put forth specifics. As Paul Guppy of the conservative Washington Policy Center remarked, until we can look at the specifics of a bill in Congress, or even a detailed written proposal, the debate cannot be adequately argued. It's forum rage about generalities.
Guppy was very specific around a central point: "Voluntary private accounts need to be in the final solution because no other solution is enough to make reform happen. In practical terms, personal retirement accounts are necessary for Social Security reform," he told me later. That is an argument that will take a lot of lifting.
Two administration supporters, Rob Nichols of the Treasury Department and Sally Canfield, policy administrator for Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, spoke Tuesday night of the crisis looming. It's out there, somewhere around 2017 — or 2040. Even the year of calamity is in dispute.
I know only this. We have not yet had a rational debate about Social Security, and in these times, perhaps such a debate is not possible until time has passed. Hastert was reported on Friday to admit there will be no Social Security bill this year, but maybe in 2006. We are not ready for this, and it may take our children to sort it out.
James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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