Why Bush's Social Security Panel Could Be the Real Deal

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RON EDMONDS/AP

A commissioner with clout? Former Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan

Presidential commissions provide the same kind of political cover as that reflexive dodge you might give when a quirky high school friend invites himself over for dinner. "I'd love to," you say. "Let me check with my wife." You've sent the right signal: you're game. But you've also left yourself an out. After an appropriate amount of time you call back. Sadly, you can't do dinner. Sure, you hate to miss seeing the snapshots of his thimble collection. Maybe next time.

It's a deeply cynical way to behave, but then again presidential commissions have often been designed with this kind of hard-wired cynicism. Naming a group to look at a problem allows presidents to be concerned without being committed. By the time the commission actually reports the issue may have blown over, a new solution may have been found or the complexities of the task will make the wise men and women so flummoxed they can't come up with an answer. (This Social Security Big Think is the eighth of such beasts. Only one has actually changed policy).

Another familiar dodge is to pack the commission with ringers so that its ultimate recommendations merely ratify a president's existing position. This was the chief bleat coming from Congressional Democrats Wednesday as George Bush announced his Social Security task force. "The panel members on this Social Security commission would be the equivalent of oil companies on a commission on ANWAR [the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge]," said Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle.

That all the members of this commission are broadly behind the president's views on Social Security should be no surprise. These kinds of things are always orchestrated to achieve pre-cooked outcomes. The trick for an administration is to come up with a grouping that appears to have been formed to look at the wide range of options. Smartly, the White House put pro-privatization Democrats to work, including former New York Senator Pat Moynihan. That helps deflect charges of table-rigging by allowing the White House to say the group is "bipartisan."

But for all their howling, Democrats are wrong if they think this commission is just going to rubber-stamp the president's position. Why? Because the president doesn't have much of a position. Much like the wispy specifics in his National Missile Defense plan yesterday, Bush has artfully ducked the tough questions about just how the privatization is going to work. His job is to set the priorities, he says. Let other people work out the hard stuff.

And there's plenty of hard stuff here for the commission members to break their pencils on. While this group may agree on the notion of privatizing at least some of Social Security, there is a whole wide landscape of things over which they have an opportunity to disagree. Here are some of the tough questions they'll face:


  • Transition costs: Just how much is it going to cost to transfer to this new system? Some experts say it could be close to $1 trillion. Where is that money going to come from? Bush has vowed not to raise Social Security taxes or cut benefits for those in the system, which walls off some options.

  • Guaranteed Benefit: Will there be a minimum amount retirees can expect that will match their current returns? Providing one will make the system more expensive. Not doing so will be politically risky.

  • Who picks the investments? Bush said during the campaign that people would be shielded from going into risky investments. No day trading would be allowed. That's an erosion of the personal freedom the entire plan is supposed to embrace; more important, who is going to determine what investments are safe, and will that entity be responsible if those "safe" investments turn out to be sour?


    These are just a few of the problems that the Commission members will have to work through. For Bush, the hard part will come in the fall when he's faced with their recommendations. Will he punt like other presidents or will he fulfill his promise to change the way Washington works by taking on their recommendations even if they are politically unpopular? He might. During the campaign nearly everyone outside of his inner circle told him his Social Security privatization plan was a loser. Bush nevertheless stuck by the plan and campaigned hard for it. Forming a commission allows him to delay that bravery until the fall. And if he keeps his backbone Bush will not only settle one of our most nettlesome public policy issues, but he'll revive the honor of presidential commissions, too.

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