April 01, 2020

President Clinton’s State of the Union address had hardly passed his lips before the partisans were arguing about whether it was a visionary agenda or a grab bag of giveaways, whether his warning to Saddam Hussein was a timely shot across the bow or a dud. Bicker away, Congress, on those, but not on his central point: save Social Security first.

The president’s “simple four-word answer” to the question of what to do with the $200 billion budget surplus the nation expects to enjoy during the next five years isn’t merely the correct one, it’s the only one.

Social Security is an obligation, a promise. That promise will be some $660 billion in the hole when today’s tax-paying Baby Boomers hit retirement age in a decade or so. No matter how the books are cooked, anytime obligation exceeds income, there is no surplus. No matter how pleasant it is to daydream about all the tax cuts and new programs those billions could buy, it can’t come true, at least not yet. This money’s already spoken for.

Mr. Clinton first plans to hold a year-long series of public forums across the country on Social Security before presenting a definite proposal. Critics were quick to label that a stalling tactic, designed to keep difficult choices and GOP-backed tax cuts off the agenda until after the November election.

That may be partly or even substantially true — the president is no political novice — but it’s also irrelevant. Social Security and it’s entitlement tag-team partner, Medicare, will crush wage-earners in the future if something involving sacrifice and pain isn’t set in motion soon. Spending one year talking and listening seems warranted, given what’s at stake.

The Republican response to the presidential centerpiece ranged from knee-jerk partisan to thoughtful. Providing the former was Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who, using an utterly silly bar graph for effect, rambled on about faith, family and freedom. Perhaps he will elaborate further `round about 2010 when young workers see 60 percent of their wages go to pay for someone else’s retirement.

Sen. Susan Collins took the rational position, calling the president’s desire to save Social Security worthy, but rightly worrying why there was no mention of reducing the country’s equally scary $5.4 trillion debt.

She may find, as the year of discussion proceeds, that the two impending disasters are intertwined, that using at least some of the surplus to pay down the national debt may be part of a Social Security solution. Reducing the national debt will lower interest rates, which could spur investment, leading to economic growth and an increased capacity to support Social Security. Trickle-down may be a gamble, but it’s nearly a sure bet that cutting the debt now would increase the government’s capacity to borrow more in the future if Social Security demands it.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle Tuesday night gave their loudest and longest ovations to themselves, responding to the president’s kind words about the nearly balanced budget, conveniently forgetting that the reason last year’s balanced-budget agreement is working so quickly is that it pretends the long-term problems facing Social Security and Medicare don’t exist. This State of the Union hardly rang with inspiring phrases, but if the president’s call to keep this promise moves the balanced budget from charade to reality, those four little words could be among his most memorable.

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