President Bush's speech at the Republican National Convention has created quite a buzz inside the Beltway and around the country - not just because of his strength in the war on terrorism or his critique of the opposition, but because of his vision of an ownership society worthy of the American people. The president's vision is perhaps the boldest domestic policy vision since FDR's "New Deal" or LBJ's "Great Society," but unlike FDR and LBJ, Bush's vision is consistent with individual liberty, free markets and entrepreneurial capitalism.
Three components of the ownership society, as articulated by the president, are Social Security reform, tax reform and Opportunity Zones. House Speaker Dennis Hastert has been an early, forceful and powerful spokesman for tax reform. Some cynically have suggested that Hastert only became serious about tax reform to put Social Security reform "on ice" during an election year, but the cynics have it backward. The speaker realizes, as Bush does, that tax reform and Social Security reform are not mutually exclusive but mutually reinforcing policy initiatives.
Politically speaking, it would be virtually impossible to move fundamental tax reform and Social Security reform concurrently. Because this is almost certainly true, the first 100 days of a new administration must be devoted to Social Security reform. As even columnist Robert Samuelson recognized in a recent opinion piece, "These (entitlement reforms) are hard issues. But they are harder today because we didn't face them yesterday, and they will be harder tomorrow because we are not facing them today."
For Social Security reform, time is of the essence, and the issue is ripe. Besides, we have already had a Social Security Commission. Serious Social Security reform proposals consistent with the president's principles are already pending in Congress and with presidential leadership reform legislation could pass in the first 100 days.
Tax reform, like Social Security reform, has been extensively debated. We also had a bipartisan commission, which I chaired in 1996. However, unlike Social Security, for fundamental tax reform to pass much political work is needed to bring powerful special interests together working toward a common goal - increased economic growth - without devolving into a food fight over specific provisions of the code. It is simply not feasible to get this done immediately following the election. More realistically, tax reform would come two years after Social Security reform.
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