A couple of weeks ago, I pointed out that President Bush has a golden opportunity right after Labor Day to advance the ownership society by repealing the death tax and giving working men and women the opportunity to own personal retirement accounts, which would both get a better rate of return and be inheritable by their families. The administration's general position on both issues is well known - it supports both - but where it stands on the legislative strategy remains a mystery. That's a real challenge but a great opportunity.
It is particularly challenging where Social Security is concerned because the president's advisers have insisted that any personal-accounts bill also must guarantee permanent solvency, a simple political impossibility this year. If the president hopes for a legislative success on Social Security, it is essential for him to clear up the mystery. Now is the time to go on record enthusiastically in favor of making a down payment on solvency by stopping the raid on Social Security and devoting payroll tax surpluses to starting personal retirement accounts, an idea being promoted by the Leadership and Ways and Means Committee members in the House and introduced by Jim DeMint, R-S.C., in the Senate.
Soon after Congress returns from its August recess, the House is expected to take up the Growing Real Ownership for Workers Act of 2005 (H.R. 3304), which once and for all puts an end to the raid on Social Security and devotes payroll tax surpluses (some $85 billion next year - $185 billion if the interest due the trust fund is included as it should be) to personal retirement accounts. I hope the administration gets out in front of the GROW Accounts legislation, which House sponsors Jim McCrery, R-La., Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and DeMint have teed up for the president. GROW Accounts will make a significant down payment on permanent Social Security solvency and get the accounts up and running.
The White House has been remarkably quiet on GROW Accounts to date. DeMint claims the White House is "silently in favor" of his bill. However, with the House preparing to vote on its version of the GROW Accounts bill sometime this month, it is time for a presidential endorsement of the idea.
The reason it is so important for Bush to signal his support for the GROW Accounts bill is that some House members remain determined to attempt a more comprehensive bill, which may backfire. If GROW Accounts are combined with other provisions, even good tax provisions such as an expansion of 401(k) accounts - and certainly if cuts to promised future benefits are included - it could bring the bill down of its own weight.
There is no way a significant number of House members will vote to cut Social Security benefits 12 months before the next election, and their leaders would be foolish to ask them to do so. Republican leaders did something similar in 1985, and it cost the Republicans control of the Senate the next year. Therefore, the only hope of starting personal retirement accounts this year is to pass a clean GROW Accounts bill, unadorned by any other so-called "solvency measures."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, with the concurrence of Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, has committed to bringing a clean GROW Accounts bill directly to the Senate floor without first sending it through the Finance Committee, from which nothing good can possibly emerge. If the House sends the Senate a complicated bill with provisions other than the GROW Accounts, the majority leader may find it impossible to avoid referring the bill to the Finance Committee.
If a clean GROW Accounts bill is brought straight to the Senate floor, it may well be filibustered. So be it. Senators would be forced to go on the record unambiguously in favor of or opposed to personal retirement accounts. If it proves impossible to find the 60 votes required to shut off debate and bring GROW Accounts to a vote in the Senate, then the issue can be taken to the people in next year's election.
Ownership is the key to democratizing our capitalist system. When every worker becomes an owner, every family will gain access to equity and capital, which are the keys to success. The GROW Accounts bill not only makes a down payment on Social Security solvency, it also opens the door to an ownership society.