By Joshua Partlow
As members of Congress wage intellectual and policy battles over the future of Social Security, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) went to La Plata on Tuesday to make his case against privatizing parts of the program.
In a town hall-style meeting at the College of Southern Maryland, Hoyer sharply criticized President Bush's proposal to add personal stock and bond accounts to the government-run program. Hoyer said diverting money to such accounts would cause costly reductions in guaranteed benefits and add risk to the retirement income for millions of seniors.
He also disputed Bush's statements that Social Security is running out of money.
"We need to stop the privatization," Hoyer told the crowd of more than 150 people in a conference center at the college. Bush "is absolutely dead, flat, 180-degrees wrong -- [Social Security] is not going broke. Period."
The forum in La Plata was one of scores of such gatherings being planned across the nation by lawmakers.
Hoyer acknowledged that Social Security faces "challenges" and is likely to need adjustments, but he said the program has "a lot of savings in the bank," namely a $1.7 trillion trust fund. "If we did nothing, which would be irresponsible, but if we did nothing," the program could pay 70 to 75 percent of benefits after 2042, Hoyer said.
Social Security, created 70 years ago during the Depression by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, was intended to help people who could no longer work.
The Bush proposal would allow workers younger than 55 to divert as much as 4 percent of income subject to Social Security taxation into personal investment accounts beginning in 2009. Workers now pay 6.2 percent of their taxable wages to Social Security, and employers match that amount. Proponents of personal accounts say people could receive larger payouts and have more control over their retirement income.
Hoyer is "putting fear into the hearts of senior citizens," said Bruce F. Wesbury, the finance chairman of the Charles County Republican Central Committee. "He stops before he gives you the whole truth."
Wesbury noted that the Bush plan includes no changes to Social Security for those born before 1950. He took issue with Hoyer's discussion of the $1.7 trillion trust fund because "he failed to explain that it doesn't exist." The money cannot be accessed without incurring debt, he said, because it is in use by the federal government and would have to be purchased. Wesbury said personal investment accounts encourage savings.
"When young people see the advantages of saving money, they're going to take control of their savings," he said, adding that his two teenage children have invested in the stock market for years.
Throughout the discussion, Hoyer reminded the audience about the broad impact of changing Social Security, a program he said not only keeps more than half of U.S. seniors out of poverty but also pays benefits to those who have disabilities or have lost family members.
Young people also need to take the issue seriously, said Hans Riemer, the Washington director of the nonprofit Rock the Vote, who spoke after Hoyer.
"Independence for seniors is also independence for young people," Riemer said. "How much would you pay to make sure your parents didn't have to live with you?"
For Deborah Mason, 49, a nurse from Waldorf who has a 13-year-old autistic son, the idea of the government rushing to alter Social Security "when it is not broken" is disturbing. She said her son might not be able to go to college or hold down a job and may have to rely on Social Security payments. She told Hoyer the program is a "lifeline for the developmentally disabled."
"Keep them in mind," she said.
Hoyer's critique of personal accounts came as part of a wider attack on Bush's fiscal policy. The Southern Maryland congressman and House minority whip cited the growing federal deficit and said diverting money into private accounts would lead to $1.4 trillion in borrowing in the first 10 years of the Social Security plan. He warned against becoming more in debt to foreign countries, particularly China.
Hoyer said he has contacted former presidential candidate H. Ross Perot three times in the past 18 months to try to persuade him to do 30-minute infomercials about why the private accounts would be bad for the country. Perot's "down-home" approach could be convincing, Hoyer said.
Hoyer said he did not have anything "intrinsically against" private investment accounts and said they could be used as a supplement to Social Security that wouldn't divert payroll contributions from the program.