Judging from the response in Georgia — a deep-red state where President Bush drew 58 percent of the vote — the president's proposal to divert part of the Social Security payroll tax into private accounts looks like roadkill.
In order to make such a dramatic change in such a politically popular program, Bush would need almost unanimous support from Republicans in Congress, plus enough votes from Democrats to give it at least the veneer of bipartisan backing. But in a survey I conducted last week, three of the state's seven Republican congressmen — Tom Price, Jack Kingston and Charlie Norwood — refused to commit to the concept as outlined by Bush, saying only that they are "open to the idea of personal accounts and willing to listen to everyone's concerns," as a spokesman for Price put it.
(The office of a fourth GOP congressman, Nathan Deal, ducked repeated efforts to get any statement at all on the issue, which may be even more telling about how frightening he finds the concept.)
On the other side of the aisle, only one of the state's six Democratic congressmen — Sanford Bishop — expressed a willingness to consider the idea, and even he calls it risky and "has serious reservations about any plans for privatization," according to his office.
(The office of U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney said it did not know her position.)
In the U.S. Senate, Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson said he strongly supports Bush's plan in concept, while his fellow Republican, Saxby Chambliss, conditions his support by saying that he is concerned about the transition costs to a new system, predicted to be several trillion dollars at least.
All in all, if that's the kind of support that the president can muster in a state like Georgia, the plan's prospects nationwide would appear dim.
Sensing trouble, Republicans are already pushing their Democratic counterparts to propose their own ideas for making Social Security financially sound, which most people believe would require a combination of benefit cuts and higher tax revenue to put more money into the Social Security trust fund.
However, something critically important has happened as this debate has played out. In appearances around the country, Bush has repeatedly described the trust fund as a myth, pointing out that it contains no real money, just government IOUs. He has become the first major politician to suggest that future taxpayers might not be able or willing to pay back those IOUs, burdened as they will be by payments on the national debt, soaring Medicare expenses for baby boomers and the cost of their own government.
"Some in our country think that Social Security is a trust; in other words, there's a pile of money being accumulated," Bush told one audience. "That's just simply not true. The money — payroll taxes — going into Social Security are spent. They're spent on benefits and they're spent on government programs. There is no trust."
And you know what? The president's absolutely right.
Thanks to the record Bush budget deficits, every surplus dollar that working people contribute to Social Security is diverted immediately into the general fund and then spent. This year alone, $169 billion in surplus Social Security funds will be diverted to run the day-to-day operations of government, raising the total debt owed by future taxpayers to the trust fund to $1.8 trillion. In 10 years, that number is projected to grow to $4.4 trillion, a truly intimidating number.
Given that reality, "solving" the Social Security problem by increasing the amount of payroll taxes pouring into the trust fund would be like pouring water into a bucket that has no bottom. On paper, it might make the books appear balanced, but it's funny money that will do nothing to make retirement benefits more secure.
The biggest threat to Social Security is the threat to our nation's overall fiscal condition posed by huge deficits year after year. The best way — and the only fair way — to solve that problem is not by raising payroll taxes on working people, but by undoing the Bush tax cuts for the rich that have largely created this nightmare.
Jay Bookman is the deputy editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution.
© 2005 Atlanta Journal Constitution