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Published: 4/22/2005

Plan to privatize retirement accounts splits delegation

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL WRITER

With the White House now into its push across the country to bolster public opinion for changes to Social Security, northwest Ohio's and southeast Michigan's congressmen are divided over what should be done with the federal retirement program.

This week's drama opened in Washington on Tuesday when Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R., Tenn.) returned from his home state and announced there was no groundswell for Social Security reforms. The White House responded by announcing a 60-day sweep of the nation with President Bush and Treasury Secretary Jack Snow leading the charge.

At the center of the debate is a proposal by the White House to divert a portion of workers' contributions to a retirement account that a worker would control and ultimately own.

What follows are the stated positions of the area's congressmen, gleaned from interviews, statements, and postings to their Web sites. Each congressman's photograph is labeled "Yes," "No," or "ND" (no decision), based on his or her position on whether some of Social Security should be privatized.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo): "We have had a severe problem with cordoning off the Social Security dollars in the trust fund, in the lockbox, which I think I voted for seven times," she said. "We have trouble with presidents keeping their hands off of it. Now with the war and the deficit, this administration is dipping into those trust funds even more. If there is a crisis being created, it is a crisis being created by this administration."

She said she favors the use of personal retirement accounts but not funding them with Social Security tax money.

She would "include others in the base of Social Security. I think we look at who else should be in the program if they are not currently in the program. For people who have been in professions where they can't work anymore, I don't think you should force folks to work. I think you have to have some flexibility in terms of the age level."

Rep. Paul Gillmor (R., Old Fort, Ohio): "Social Security must be significantly strengthened for our children and grandchildren," Mr. Gillmor said in a recent statement posted on his Web site. "I believe that investing money in voluntary personal accounts and allowing younger workers to decide how their money is invested is an idea that deserves serious consideration.

"Voluntary personal accounts invested in safe, low-cost, broad-based investment funds will earn higher rates of return than the traditional system and help workers enhance their personal savings. These accounts will allow all Americans to create and own a nest egg that can be passed on to their children," the statement said.

Rep. Michael Oxley (R., Findlay): "I agree with President Bush that we need to save Social Security from bankruptcy, and that personal retirement accounts should be part of the solution," Mr. Oxley said this week. "Personal accounts would give everyone a chance to build a nest egg for retirement. This is an account that the government could not touch and that could be passed on to your children, which you can't do with current Social Security benefits."

"In the case of Social Security, it would be the difference between a long-term return of 5 percent after inflation and Social Security's paltry return of less than 2 percent. Over decades of diligent saving, that translates into thousands of additional dollars that would make retirement more comfortable for millions of Americans," he said in a statement last month.

Rep. John Dingell

(D., Dearborn, Mich.): "There is no crisis. What the President is suggesting in fact is going to create an earlier and bigger crisis. Social Security after 2052 will be able to pay 76 percent of promised benefits. The amount of things that have to be done to change this are relatively small and can be politically acceptable."

His idea is to remove the $90,000 cap at which workers stop paying taxes into the Social Security fund.

"The principle of which I am suggesting is to make all salaries subject to taxation to support Social Security. That would mean raising the 90,000 exemption to whatever. That will make the Social Security trust fund actuarially sound for 75 more years," he said. "That's really all you need to do."

Like Ms. Kaptur, he opposes diverting Social Security taxes into personal accounts.

w●Rep. Joe Schwarz (R., Battlecreek): "I am willing to listen to any proposal and to speak to people who know far more about Social Security than I do," said the freshman lawmaker in an interview.

"People who are 55 and older have got to have absolute assurances that those benefits are not tinkered with," he said. "We have to be honest with ourselves. Somehow revenues are going to have to be enhanced."

He said he favors lifting the cap on contributions so that those making more than $90,000 would continue to pay Social Security taxes.

He said that once all other problems were solved with the program, he would then consider adding personal accounts, but not before. They cannot be allowed to threaten the viability of the program, he said.

w●Ohio Sen. Mike DeWine, a Republican: "I agree that we must do something to encourage personal savings. The President opened a very important dialogue to protect what he called 'a great moral success' - Social Security. I am open to all ideas and believe that this is something we can come together to strengthen. Our children and grandchildren deserve that much. "

"I'm open to the discussion, but it's clear we are not going to get anywhere unless we get bipartisan support and we don't seem to get any support from Democrats for the personal accounts," he told the Associated Press.

A statement issued by a spokesman said Mr. DeWine "has not determined whether or not private savings accounts should be a part of strengthening Social Security for our children and grandchildren."

w●Ohio Sen. George Voinovich, a Republican: Mr. Voinovich has taken a public stand against the President's move to change Social Security quickly, citing problems with the federal budget that would make those changes beyond what the country could afford, and a lack of the public's understanding about what is at stake.

"People probably need to be brought up to speed as to how the program works, what the threats to it are," said spokesman Scott Milburn. "He's kind of hesitant about the idea of jumping right into legislation right now and passing something by the end of spring, or whatever aggressive timetable other people might have."

w●Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, a Democrat: "Because Social Security has been such an effective and necessary program, we must protect the benefits received while strengthening the system to assure that it is sufficiently and adequately funded. That is why Senator Levin has opposed any tax cut that would dip into the Social Security Trust Fund, essentially mortgaging our financial future for a short-term reward," according to a statement on Mr. Levin's Web site.

He opposes personal accounts for two reasons, his statement said: "First, the stock market is unpredictable. If individuals could invest their Social Security savings in the stock market, they could see a severe decline in the amount they invested," said the statement. "Secondly, allowing individuals to invest in private market accounts depletes the Social Security Trust Fund of valuable resources at a time that Americans need more financial stability, not less."

w●Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat: "Some people are trying to scare Americans by manufacturing a crisis. Let's look at the facts: The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office reports Social Security can pay 100% of its commitments until the year 2052. Even after that, Social Security will be able to pay nearly 80% of its commitments - hardly a crisis," Ms. Stabenow said in a statement on her Web site.

"President Bush's privatization plan will actually undermine our economy and make Social Security less secure, with deep cuts in benefits and huge increases in the national debt."

A spokesman for Ms. Stabenow said she has not yet decided to support any other change in the system, preferring to wait to hear more about the President's ideas.

Contact Fritz Wenzel at:

fritz@theblade.com

or 419-724-6134.



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