WASHINGTON - President Bush said yesterday that he was determined to send a message to Congress, Wall Street and the American people that fixing Social Security's long-term cash shortfall was as critical as reducing budget deficits and addressing other, more immediate problems.
Bush urged Congress to simplify the tax code, rein in government spending, hold down lawsuits and roll back regulations.
He also wants Congress to make permanent the temporary tax cuts he won in his first term.
Wrapping up a two-day economic conference, Bush made an aggressive sales pitch for restructuring the New Deal-era retirement program by letting younger workers open private investment accounts, an approach that would widen the federal deficit for a decade or more before long-term savings began to accrue.
"The crisis is now," Bush said, previewing the message he promised to deliver to members of Congress in January. "You may not feel it, your constituents may not be overwhelming you with letters demanding a fix, but the crisis is now."
Bush's partial privatization plan was roundly applauded by the carefully screened participants at the economic conference, but it had the opposite effect on interest groups that announced that they were banding together to lobby against Bush's plans.
"The fight against privatizing Social Security will be the fight of our lives," said George Kourpias, president of the Alliance for Retired Americans, one of several groups that said they were not invited to present their views at the White House conference. "Privatization will destroy Social Security."
The exchanges set the stage for what is expected to be one of the most contentious issues confronting next year's Congress. Bush has elevated the restructuring of Social Security to the top of his domestic policy agenda, and the issue has become an ideological battleground between defenders of the traditional government safety net and advocates of the administration's "ownership society" agenda.
Many analysts concur that the Social Security system faces a serious cash-flow deficit in the years ahead as members of the "baby boom" generation retire and benefits escalate faster than revenues. But they disagree sharply over the severity of the crisis and the merits of proposed solutions for eliminating the shortfall.
Social Security's board of trustees, composed of three federal officials and three knowledgeable private citizens, estimates that benefits will overtake revenue in 2018. The program will be able to pay scheduled benefits only by drawing down its surplus.
In 2042, the trustees estimate, Social Security will become "insolvent." Annual payroll tax revenue will be the only source of cash, and it will be enough to pay only about three-fourths of promised benefits.
Although Bush has not endorsed a specific restructuring plan, the broad outlines of his approach have begun to emerge: Current retirees and workers nearing retirement would experience no changes. Workers under the age of 55 or so would face a cut in future benefits below the levels promised by current law. They would be allowed, but not required, to divert a portion of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts, which the administration believes will earn a greater return than the government's Social Security fund.
By tackling the problem now, Bush said during a morning panel discussion, "we'll send a message to the financial markets that we recognize we have an issue with both short-term deficits and the long-term deficits of unfunded liabilities to the entitlement programs."
Those comments appeared to address one of the principal criticisms of the kind of Social Security overhaul the White House is considering: The government would need to borrow $1 trillion to $2 trillion over the next decade to replace the payroll taxes that would be diverted into private investment accounts, even if the system eventually came out ahead.
Bush administration officials contend that the money can be borrowed without disrupting the economy or putting upward pressure on interest rates because financial markets will recognize that the additional debt is part of a package that will reduce the government's long-term unfunded liabilities.
But some independent economists expressed doubts, saying that bond traders were already rattled by the prospect of more deficit spending, which is financed in part by foreign government purchases of Treasury securities.
"If he floats another $2 trillion of American debt, the first board meeting of the ownership society will be held in Beijing, because they're the ones who are buying all the debt," said William Spriggs, a senior fellow at the liberal Economic Policy Institute.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.