Don't get all radical and fix Social Security

The Baltimore Sun

The people running Washington had me worried. To hear them talk, I thought they might craft a bipartisan solution for Social Security by slightly cutting my benefits and raising taxes.

Thank goodness it's just babble.

"I don't think it's going to go anywhere," says Robert L. Bixby, executive director of the Concord Coalition, which pushes the silly idea that today's generations shouldn't loot the Treasury at the expense of future ones.

In February, Rob Portman, President Bush's budget chief, told senators that the Republican White House is "willing to take what are politically difficult steps" to fix Social Security.

Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. implored the Democratic Congress last month, via The Charlie Rose Show: "Let's come together. Let's not come with preconditions. Let's not try to negotiate this in the press. Let's not try to negotiate it publicly. Let's come together and deal with the fundamental issues."

Those are scary words if, like me, you're part of the secret baby-boomer plan to drain Social Security and then die just before it goes bankrupt. Especially when we hear similar sounds coming from the Democrats.

"We can get Social Security on a sound fiscal footing for the foreseeable future if we work together," House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, from Maryland's 5th District, said on Fox News in January.

I feared I'd have to make a modest sacrifice so my grandchildren and great-grandchildren could enjoy an old-age financial cushion like the one I'll get.

Anybody born after, say, 1970, should be quite concerned about whether the thousands they have contributed to Social Security will be there when they retire. The system is projected to exhaust its trust fund in 2041. By then, boomers who now are financing huge surpluses will have retired and withdrawn everything in the kitty.

Saving Social Security wouldn't be difficult now. There are 34 years until 2041. Limited benefit cuts and tax increases could put the program in fine shape until the 22nd century.

The secret to success is getting an extra contribution from boomers before they retire by modestly raising payroll taxes for everybody, boomers included. Just as the numerous boomers are a huge liability to the program after retirement, we represent a huge potential credit while we're working.

But you can't wait too long. The oldest boomers turn 62 next year. Every year of procrastination adds hundreds of billions to the cost of fixing Social Security for the long term.

Fortunately for me, Washington looks like it will blow yet another chance to do the right thing.

First, Bush insisted on including "personal accounts" for Social Security in his fiscal 2008 budget, although he couldn't even get a Republican Congress to approve the idea a few years ago. (Personal accounts would allow individuals to put Social Security dollars into the stock and bond markets.)

That hacked off Democrats, who rightly believe that Social Security benefits should not be exposed to Wall Street and viewed revival of the idea as evidence that Republicans don't want to compromise.

But the Democrats aren't exactly leading the "Save Social Security" parade, either. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid are focused on the war in Iraq. While they were right to worry about a White House doublecross in any Social Security talks (leaking details of Democrat proposals to raise taxes, for example), they never even gave the idea a chance.

And they're certainly not about to send a Democrat-only reform bill to Bush a year before a presidential election. That would take the kind of political courage that Washington hasn't seen in a long time.

As for Hoyer's part, "He really did want to get something done, but I think there would have to be a lot of dedication on the White House's part," said Hoyer spokeswoman Stacey Farnen Bernards. "They are obviously bogged down in other things."

Fine with me. My fellow boomers and I will belly up to the trough for three decades and, just before it's empty, escape to where Social Security checks won't buy anything, anyway. Too bad about you younger chumps.

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