Senior members of the House Ways and Means Committee, its chairman and the entire House leadership, along with a dozen senators recently announced their intention to introduce legislation to stop the raid on Social Security surpluses and begin saving them in personal accounts for workers' retirements. What a huge achievement for the GOP, and what an important victory for President Bush, who wants to further democratize our capitalistic economy.
This legislative breakthrough is an even greater victory for the nearly 160 million Americans who pay Social Security taxes, especially low- and moderate-income workers who currently find it difficult to impossible to save, build wealth and get access to capital after paying the crushing payroll tax burden that takes 12.5 percent of every dollar they earn. If the Social Security surplus and the interest due the trust fund were placed in personal retirement accounts, workers would enjoy accounts equal to about one-third of the payroll taxes they currently pay. For a $50,000-a-year earner, that's almost $2,000 a year; for a $30,000 earner, that's more than $1,100.
Workers finally will be able to save and invest some of their hard-earned wages in retirement accounts they own and control instead of Congress spending them on unrelated programs. More importantly, workers will start to earn a fair rate of return on their Social Security dollars and enjoy higher retirement benefits. The current system will pay today's average worker as little as 1 percent or 2 percent. Many workers receive a negative real rate of return.
Personal retirement accounts offer a better deal for workers - higher benefits, greater security and the guarantee that no politician can take those benefits away.
The new approach, which is a pure personal accounts bill - no tax increases, no benefit cuts, no hikes in the retirement age - is the key to the ownership society that Bush - and before him President Clinton and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - long promoted. Britain also allows its workers to place part of their retirement taxes into personal accounts.
Bush understands that allowing workers to own assets and build wealth in personal retirement accounts would give all American workers a stake in the American economy, a stake in the taxation of capital and business activity, an interest in controlling the growth of federal spending and in larger civil society generally.
By refocusing the debate on the benefits of individual ownership and wealth creation, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC, and his allies in the House, including Reps. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., and Social Security Subcommittee Chairman Jim McCrery, R-La., have rescued Social Security reform from the bureaucrats' obsession with building grandiose schemes to make Social Security appear permanently solvent on paper in perpetuity.
Democrats thus far have obstructed every effort of the president to modernize Social Security by placing it on a sound financial footing. They've denied a serious problem exists with Social Security and refused to make any suggestions for reform of their own. In one sense, though, they are correct. There is not an immediate crisis analogous to a car careening toward a cliff. The crisis is more like a small malignancy: If remedial treatment is begun early enough, radical surgery might be avoided down the road.
That is why this new effort to stop the raid and start the accounts makes so much sense. Beginning to save Social Security surpluses in personal accounts right now makes a serious down payment on solvency and buys Congress time to adjust and expand the program and achieve permanent solvency in the future. Attempting to achieve permanent solvency on paper by raising taxes, cutting benefits and hiking the retirement age will only make a bad deal for workers even worse.
If workers were allowed to save the annual Social Security surplus plus interest due and already scheduled to be paid to the trust fund, it would be possible to create personal retirement accounts equal to between 3.5 percent and 4 percent of payroll for the next 10 years. The 4 percent accounts Bush prefers would be a substantial down payment on solvency and would constitute a significant step toward more fundamental reform.
The battle for personal retirement accounts is finally forming up in Congress. I can't think of a better Fourth of July message from the president than to urge Congress to stop the raid, start the accounts and declare workers' independence through ownership of their own retirement accounts.