Monday, May 30, 2005


DN-Stenholm: let's be nice

File photo of Stenholm's 66th birthday
Oct 26, 2004, in Abilene, Texas.
Stenholm cake
Charlie Stenholm had an op-ed piece in yesterday's Dallas News suggesting we should have a polite debate with the president over Social Security Reform:
Charlie Stenholm: Enough with the rhetoric

Both parties must open their eyes to the sacrifice and innovation that Social Security reform will require

10:01 PM CDT on Sunday, May 29, 2005

Having worked for the last nine years trying to find a bipartisan solution to the challenges facing Social Security, I was very encouraged when President Bush put his political capital on the line to make Social Security reform the top domestic priority of his administration.

The reform debate over the last few months has been frustrating. The president chose to lead with individual accounts, with only passing references to the tough choices necessary to restore solvency. Many Republicans went so far as to claim that enacting individual accounts would make any tough choices unnecessary. The response from my party has been even more discouraging, downplaying the need for action and criticizing every idea put forward without offering a constructive alternative.

The president's April 28 news conference re-injected hope into the debate. By proposing restraints on the growth of benefits for wealthier retirees to close much of the funding gap and expressing his willingness to work with Congress on additional changes, President Bush acknowledged that there is no free lunch in Social Security reform.

Anyone who tells you that there is a painless way to fix Social Security isn't telling the whole truth. Maintaining the status quo will force future Congresses to cut other important government programs, raise additional taxes or issue massive amounts of new debt to meet the obligations to future retirees.

The approach outlined by the president, preserving and strengthening benefits for those who are most dependent on Social Security, should appeal to Republicans and Democrats who want to deal responsibly with the financial challenges facing Social Security while protecting the most vulnerable Americans.

President Bush acknowledged that additional changes would be necessary to restore solvency and offered to work with Congress to close the remaining shortfall. Now it is up to Congress to respond to the president's challenge. Members of Congress concerned about the president's proposal should make constructive suggestions about how to improve the plan.

Tough choices will be necessary to eliminate Social Security's deficit, whether or not individual accounts are included in a reform plan. Including individual accounts in a reform plan does not require deeper benefit reductions than would otherwise be required, but neither do they make such reductions unnecessary. However, individual accounts can help make the task easier for policymakers and limit the impact on future beneficiaries.

I respect those who honestly oppose individual accounts as part of Social Security. But opposing personal accounts is not a substitute for offering a positive solution dealing with the challenges that will face Social Security. Without individual accounts, the projected benefits Social Security can offer will drop unless taxes are increased. At the same time, simply expressing support for individual accounts while ruling out any tough choices on restraining the growth of benefit costs is equally irresponsible.

All options should be on the table. Social Security reform is bound to inflame passions, including my own. But it is important that all participants in this debate avoid inflammatory rhetoric that prevents us from finding workable solutions. Reaching agreement will require sacrifices by both parties. All parties must resist the temptation to immediately shoot down ideas they don't like. At least don't shoot 'em on the ground. Let the idea fly in the public debate long enough to consider its merits.

Former Texas Democratic Congressman Charlie Stenholm serves as an adviser to For Our Grandchildren, a Social Security reform and education project. He can be contacted at admin@ forourgrandchildren.org.

Source: Dallas News opinions.

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