President Bush's euphoria on the eve of his inaugural surely deflated slightly when the congressional Republican with final say over Bush's planned Social Security reform called this centerpiece of his second term a "dead horse."
The White House has yet to provide details of the president's reform plan. Presumably, that will come in his State of the Union address Feb. 2, with the hard numbers in the budget that goes to Congress the following week.
By keeping the plan largely secret, the White House prevents critics from tearing it apart before the president can announce it in his own way. But Republican backbenchers are leery of being asked to sell to their constituents a plan they haven't seen, and many of these same GOP lawmakers are growing increasingly uneasy about the political repercussions in 2006 if the plan requires benefit cuts and massive borrowing.
Bush had great success in his first term by declaring a "crisis," dropping a legislative package on the table and demanding that Congress pass it quickly in its entirety. Now with a strengthened majority -- thanks greatly to Bush's coattails -- congressional Republicans are determined to enact an agenda of their own.
Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif., is chairman of Ways and Means, the House committee directly responsible for Social Security and the taxes to pay for it. At a seminar this week, he pronounced the president's plan "soon to be a dead horse of a proposal," not because it was necessarily a bad idea but that "given the politics of the House and Senate," it could not win passage.
While Bush will likely propose diverting a part of the Social Security payroll tax into private accounts, Thomas would like to replace the current regressive payroll tax with an altogether new financing mechanism, done this year as part of a sweeping tax reform -- not at all what the White House has in mind.
Thomas called for outside-the-box ideas to break the political and ideological impasse over Social Security. Among the two ideas he tossed out were gender-adjusted Social Security benefits, because women live longer; and occupation-adjusted benefits, because blue-collar workers retire earlier than white-collar workers. Those proposals would indeed send skittish lawmakers scampering for the hills.
Once Bush and Thomas see what each has in mind, it's vital that they cooperate on Social Security reform, because it's only by tackling Social Security that Congress can summon up the political courage to address a far graver and more imminent fiscal and demographic threat -- Medicare.
Scripps Howard News Service