A Risk Worth Taking

Posted: Jan 18, 2005 12:00 AM

Americans have always been willing to take risks.

The signers of the Declaration of Independence understood that if their revolution ended badly, they?d lose their heads. Later, settlers braved nature and natives to cross the plains in search of a better life. In our lifetime, men rode rockets into space and explored the moon.

Some of our leaders are a bit more timid today.

?Why stir up a political hornet?s nest . . . when there is no urgency?? Republican Rep. Rob Simmons of Connecticut told The Washington Post recently. Simmons was discussing the president?s plan to fix Social Security through the creation of Personal Retirement Accounts.
?When does the program go belly up? 2042. I will be dead by then,? he added.

Well, some of us won?t be.

And in any event, Social Security?s problems will begin long before 2042. That?s merely the year in which the famed trust fund is set to run out. But the system will actually start spending more in benefits than it takes in through taxes as early as 2018. At that point, our leaders will have to decide whether they want to cut benefits, raise taxes or borrow billions of dollars to keep Social Security afloat.

Rest assured we?ll see some political courage if that happens.

What Rep. Simmons seems really concerned about is that if he votes to reform Social Security, he might be voted out of office in 2006. As former House Speaker Newt Gingrich put it, ?Why would [a lawmaker] go home tomorrow having cut benefits in Social Security for a problem that might happen in 25 years??

Gingrich led the Republican revolution of 1994, and it?s reasonable he?d be worried about any measure that might cost his party House seats. But there?s no point in having a conservative Congress if it?s not going to work to enact conservative policies. At some point lawmakers have to be willing to take political risks to do what?s right.

And in fact, Rep. Simmons wouldn?t actually be taking that large of a risk. He was re-elected in November by a solid margin -- 54 percent to 46 percent. Granted, that?s a squeaker of an election compared to a couple of his colleagues from Connecticut. Democrat John Larson scored a 73-27 victory over his challenger, while Democrat Rosa DeLauro won 72-25. Still, 54-46 is better than President Bush did, and he?s frequently credited with a mandate.

In fact, every congressional incumbent in Connecticut won re-election last year. So did more than 90 percent of House members nationwide. Incumbency is such a benefit that, about a week before the election, political observer Charles Cook listed just 39 House races as ?competitive.?

That?s 39 out of 435, or about 9 percent. Many of those were open seats (no incumbent) or in Texas, where a rare mid-decade redistricting scheme created several competitive races. So Rep. Simmons, like the overwhelming majority of House members, should be pretty safe as long as his actions make sense. And fixing Social Security now, before it becomes an albatross, makes sense.

Rep. Simmons ought to be willing, even eager, to explain to voters that, as Heritage Foundation economist David John writes, ?Social Security will need almost $27 trillion (in inflation-adjusted 2004 dollars) in additional funding over the next 75 years.? Voters know it would be virtually impossible to raise that much, even if we increase taxes, increase borrowing and slash all other government spending to the bone.

He could also point out that while the cost of establishing Personal Retirement Accounts is indeed steep -- in the neighborhood of $7 trillion -- that?s less than a third of the $27 trillion we?ll have to raise if we don?t enact reform.

President Bush and his advisors seem confident the American people understand that Social Security is becoming a crisis. He promised reform while on the campaign trail last fall and still won re-election.

Still, there?s no doubt that reforming Social Security involves some political risks. Some congressmen may actually lose their jobs if they vote for reform. Reform involves other risks as well. If there?s a decades? long stock market crash years from now, PRAs might not even work. Of course, in that case we?ll all be growing potatoes in our backyards, too, so retirement would hardly be a concern.

It?s crystal clear that if we don?t fix Social Security, it will dump a crushing load of debt on our children and grandchildren. Let?s do what?s right, as our predecessors did, and leave our descendents a better country.