WASHINGTON - President Bush will appoint a Social Security reform commission today that is touted as bipartisan but is also stacked with scholars and former lawmakers who largely share his view that the retirement program should be partially privatized.
The 16-member commission - eight Republicans and eight Democrats - is being asked to draft a plan to overhaul Social Security and present it to Bush in the fall, a senior administration official said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the panel would be comprised of "people who are committed to the president's ideas."
"Of course, he is putting together a commission that believes in what he believes in," Fleischer said.
Bush, sidestepping a reporter's question yesterday about the panel's makeup, said the commission would make "an objective analysis of Social Security: How do we save it? What do we do to make sure it is viable in the future?"
But Democratic leaders complained that expected members seemed to be selected to achieve a pre-ordained result - backing Bush's campaign proposal to let younger Americans divert some of their payroll tax money into private investment accounts.
"This is a stacked deck," said Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. "This is not an objective view of our options under Social Security. We don't need another lobbyist group."
Bush is expected to introduce the commission at a Rose Garden ceremony this morning. Former Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York and AOL Time Warner executive Richard Parsons will serve as co-chairmen, the administration official said.
Other members will include former Democratic Rep. Timothy J. Penny of Minnesota; former Bush campaign adviser John Cogan; and Carolyn Weaver, formerly with the conservative American Enterprise Institute, the official said.
Most if not all of the members are expected to support Bush's desire to allow private investment accounts under Social Security for the first time.
Bush has argued that the stock market would offer young workers far higher returns on their investment than if they left the money in Social Security. He campaigned on the idea last year as a way to help keep enough money in the Social Security system to withstand a spike in the number of new retirees in the next 20 years.
Opponents say Bush's plan risks draining too much money from the fund. They have also used the current economic downturn to argue that workers cannot rely on a jittery stock market when investing their earnings.
"After the last six months of the stock market, I am shocked that the president would really be trying to move forward with this proposal," said House Democratic leader Richard A. Gephardt. "I would hate to have had our Social Security recipients subject to the fluctuations that have gone on in the stock market in the past six months."
Martin Corry, director of federal affairs at AARP, which opposes the Bush proposal, said: "Most of the names [of commission members] we're hearing today are in favor of a kind of investment account that takes money out of the trust fund."
He said he was "disappointed" that "we will not have a full and fair discussion."
Bush aides considered naming current members of Congress to the commission but had some difficulty persuading Democrats to take part.
One Democrat, who spoke on the condition he not be identified, said he had been asked whether he would be willing to serve against the wishes of his party leaders and whether he would agree in advance to recommend that Social Security taxes be redirected into private accounts. He declined.
In the end, Bush decided not to appoint sitting lawmakers, agreeing with those Republicans who feared that it could hurt their re-election chances.
But Sen. Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican who has been active in the Social Security debate, said the absence of current House and Senate members could diminish the panel's influence.
"You wonder what kind of political support its recommendations would have if nobody has ownership," he said.
In announcing his plans in February to appoint the commission, Bush said it would have three guiding principles: preserving the benefits of current retirees or those near retirement; returning the system to "sound financial footing"; and offering personal investment accounts.
Some Republicans questioned the value of having a commission to, in effect, rubber-stamp Bush's privatization plan.
"I'm not sure that a commission makes any difference in the politics of getting the legislation passed," said Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. of Baltimore County. "It may even make the job harder by attracting unfavorable publicity."