Clinton Fires First on Social Security

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President Clinton used his weekly radio address to fire the opening round in what will be Topic 1 in Washington this week: Social Security, and what to do with all that extra cash. On the table from the White House: a detailed version of his plan to use the $760 billion Social Security surplus to pay down the national debt, then use the money from reduced interest payments to restock the retirement fund. And to get Republians to play ball, Clinton's dropping his push to have the government invest 15 percent of the fund in the stock market. That's not much of a concession; Alan Greenspan's gentle but firm rejection of the Clinton plan this spring drew a lot of water, and the little-government GOP was never going to go for a plan that would result in state ownership of private companies and in effect create a "Department of Investing Everybody's Money." Still, it's a sign that the White House isn't going to let Republicans stake out the fiscal high ground without a fight.

Of course, we may be having the wrong conversation altogether. The problem isn't necessarily that we're not taking in enough money, but that we're not sending it out in the right way. It seems more than a little schizophrenic to be running a $760 billion surplus on one side of the government ledger while carrying a $3.7 trillion debt on the other, and while the White House plan takes care of one part of the equation, it sidesteps making the unpopular choices — like means-testing — that would truly make Social Security a viable program. "We will not let [the President] raid the Social Security trust fund," Republican J. C. Watts said Saturday, but both sides seem content to do just the opposite: raid the rest of the Treasury to prop up Social Security. Unfortunately, both are just accounting tricks. To paraphrase LBJ, "Son, it's all our money." Which is probably why it's difficult to spend it wisely.