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Social Security reform demands an open process



Published: Fri, June 15, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



A year ago or two ago, as the bull market continued to charge forward, everyone was saying that the best thing for Social Security was to privatize. Everybody just had to have a piece of the stock market.

Now, a lot of people are having second thoughts -- but you won't find any of those folks on a presidential commission impaneled to chart the future of Social Security. President Bush has put together a panel of 12 men and women, Republicans and Democrats, with backgrounds in business, industry and government, who all seem to agree that Social Security as we know it is a dinosaur bound for extinction and that individual retirement accounts are the only way to go.

Maybe, maybe not: They may be right. We're not yet convinced and we don't think a lot of Americans are convinced, but maybe they're right. Wouldn't it have been better, though, to begin the task of "saving" Social Security with a panel that included some members who weren't already singing out of the president's hymnal?

The commission is supposed to put together its recommendations to Bush by this fall. In the meantime, the commission's staff wioll produce a blueprint by next month and a few public hearings will be held, probably in September. That sounds like a mighty ambitious timetable for revamping a 66-year-old institution that has arguably done more to improve the standard of living for America's elderly than any other single factor.

It is, of course, President Bush's prerogative to choose this strategy. He has named a commission to tell him what he wants to hear so that he can use the commission to pursue his campaign pledge to fix what he sees as a broken system.

Expectations: That's fine as long as he doesn't expect Congress and the American people to blindly accept his commission's recommendation. In physics, every action produces an equal and opposite reaction; in politics, a closed preliminary process demands an open secondary process.

President Clinton found that out when he tried to push through health care reform based on a preordained concept. President Bush should not be surprised if his political opponents borrow a page or two from those early Clinton years when it comes time for them to respond to the Social Security commission's recommendations.

The president could have and should have used this summer for a more open inquiry into all the options available to shore up Social Security.




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