Social Security reform may pass

Posted: Feb 23, 2005 12:00 AM

There is a high likelihood that Social Security reform will be passed within a year. I write this although most congressmen I have spoken with -- both Republican and Democratic -- currently don't expect it. In fact, many members doubt it will even come to a vote. They are certainly hoping it won't. But then congressmen and senators are sometimes nearly the last to know how they are actually going to vote.

 When I was Speaker Newt Gingrich's press secretary in the 1990s, it was often the case that only weeks, days and sometimes even hours or minutes before an important vote, less than half the members expressed support for the legislation that ultimately passed. While inducements and arm twisting inevitably played its part in some last minutes decisions (and surely will on Social Security this time), the larger reason for the unreliability of early congressional opinion is that until close to the time of voting, the members are not fully aware of all the decision criteria they will face.

 Depending on which side has done a better job of public persuasion, public opinion may change nationally or in their districts. There may be unexpected changes in the lineup of interest groups in support of a bill. Certain interest groups will be more or less effective in making their cases. This year, the president's outside supporters may spend up to $200 million in support of passage. Karl Rove's multi-million-person election year volunteer machinery will be rolled out to do battle. The burden of those efforts have not yet begun to have their effects.

  Right now, voting no on Social Security looks like the safer vote. But if President Bush can create a sense of urgency in the public (and particularly in the districts of hesitant members), then voting no next fall may be seen as carrying its own political risks.

 Often congressmen and senators assume certain provisions of a bill will be popular or unpopular, and express their early support or opposition accordingly. But they may find out their early assumptions were wrong. This could well be the case on Social Security. Currently there are about two dozen Republican House members who have told their leadership that voting for Social Security changes could be political death for them. Another about 40 members probably share that fear. If they are justified in their fears, their leadership will not try to force them to vote yes, in which case Social Security will not pass the House. After all, the Republican House leadership doesn't want to risk losing its majority status in the next congress.

 But careful polling may well show these members that their fear is misplaced. Politicians rely on their political judgment built up over a lifetime in politics. This instinct is usually pretty accurate for politicians midway through a successful electoral career. But their instinct on Social Security may well be off because of the sharp difference in public attitudes based on the age of the voters.

 The electorate is, of course, constantly changing. Old people die, young people come of age and start voting. We don't notice this gradual change, and usually it doesn't matter that much. But on the issue of Social Security, age is a defining measure of attitude. The Roosevelt-era voters, who hold Social Security untouchable, are dying off very quickly now, while the post-boomer generation, which discounts its reliability, is coming into its high voting rate period of life. The boomers are split.

 Most congressmen over the age of 40 feel in their bones that touching Social Security is political death. But their bones may be deceiving them. When the Republican Party starts polling the specific districts of fearful members, they may well find out that properly designed, a Social Security bill may not be political death at all -- given the changing demographics. The party has several months to take these soundings, as part of a confidence-building effort for the members who will be called on to vote in the fall or winter.

 Moreover, only after months of careful polling, listening and discussion with various interest groups and political factions, will President Bush settle on the various pieces of his Social Security bill most likely to gain majority support in Congress. Currently, members of Congress are imagining a fright night of all the most unpopular provisions.

 The other element not currently being fully considered is President Bush's willfulness, persistence and leadership. Particularly if Iraq and foreign policy are seen to be going better by the fall, President Bush will carry a bigger megaphone in persuading the public and a bigger stick to persuade the politicians.

 Thus, it is highly relevant to the politics of Social Security that Sen. Hillary Clinton started talking positively about events in Iraq last week. As a particularly acute bellwether of political expediency, Senator Clinton's positive rhetorical shift on Iraq suggests good news for President Bush. With the economy predicted to continue in healthy 3.5 percent growth for the year, and with things going the president's way abroad, he could well go into the autumn legislating season with 55-58 percent job approval.

 Such a president -- armed with a carefully designed bill that finesses the hardest bits of the reform, and laying the charge of obstruction and dereliction of duty at the doorstep of naysaying congressmen of both parties -- is quite likely to get his way on Social Security reform, which almost all members, despite what they are saying publicly, know is in desperate need of rectification. And, at the margin, that shriveled but not yet fully dead sense of public duty, may move the odd vote or two.