TOPICS > Politics

House Ways and Means Debates Social Security

March 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: So how is the debate over Social Security playing out in Congress and around the country?

For that, we turn to Amy Walter, an analyst with the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that covers U.S. politics.

And Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center, an independent public policy research organization.

So, Amy Walter, with all that talk of pluses and minuses we understand again why Social Security is considered the third rail of American politics. What’s really happening on the Hill?

AMY WALTER: I think that what you’re watching there is an internal struggle among members as much as it is about a partisan back-and-forth.

Look, I think it’s only natural in a second-term presidency that there is a tension between a president who is looking to establish a legacy and members of Congress who are looking for their own immediate legacy which is getting re-elected the next year.

Clearly this is an issue that many members are very wary about touching and being associated with something that’s called a cut or anything that looks like a tax hike. This is something that I think many members would rather not have to deal with coming into election, absolutely.

GWEN IFILL: So much of the debate seems to be, especially on the Senate side, seems to be happening within the Republican Party. Is that a fair assessment?

AMY WALTER: Well I think that is true because what we’re seeing right now is this idea, we see it a little bit between the Senate and the House too about whether or not we’re going to be able to do something that conservatives and moderates can agree on.

One of those things is raising the cap. That’s something that conservatives have said out loud we’re not going to be able to do something like that because our conservative members will see this as a tax hike. There is no way we’re going to get it through the House.

GWEN IFILL: Andy Kohut as we watched it in Washington, politicians and interest groups are consumed by this back and forth. Is the American public, according to your polling, following this?

ANDY KOHUT: Oh, yeah. This is an issue that engages the public. They care about it. We’ve got two-thirds of the public saying that they think that Social Security will run out of money as it is now constituted unless something is done, two-thirds saying something should be done either immediately or within the next few years.

Now there are other issues too. Medicare gets the same kind of rating. And health care more generally gets a higher rating.

But, you know, the president has sold this as a problem. His problem and the GOP’s problem is that he hasn’t sold the solution. In fact, the public is rejecting the proposals that he’s made according to our tracking poll.

GWEN IFILL: So those people who are paying attention aren’t necessarily buying at least this first issue of private accounts, which has seemed to consume so much of the debate?

ANDY KOHUT: Absolutely. Now, if you look at the trend back in September, 58 percent have said they favored the idea of private accounts for allowing younger people to put a portion of the payroll taxes into private accounts.

That fell to 54 percent in December as more people heard about it. It fell further to 46 percent as even more people had heard about it by February.

In fact our survey showed that when we divided the poll into people who had heard a lot about this or said they heard a lot about it, a plurality of them disapproved of private accounts.

While people said they heard only a little, most of that group said they liked the idea so the more people have heard, the less they’ve liked it.

GWEN IFILL: Amy Walter, let’s talk about this. The private accounts debate in particular because it seems Sen. Lindsey Graham told the Washington Post that this is a side show, a huge fight over a side show was his way of putting it.

And what you were hearing just now in the House was a lot of people saying we should be focused on the bigger question of solvency. How big a distraction has this debate over private accounts been?

AMY WALTER: Well it looks like it’s clearly the road bump that Democrats have united in opposition to any sort of private or personal, whatever we’re going to call this account.

There is absolutely no work that’s going to be done on a bipartisan basis and nothing can get through the Senate with just Republicans unless this private personal account is taken off the table and something else is added.

Whether it’s something, now we’re hearing about these add-on accounts that don’t actually carve out from the Social Security fund — whether that is acceptable to other Republicans we will soon see.

I think what Democrats are hoping, and this is the battle for them too and they’re having their own internal struggles which is do we go ahead and try to use this as an issue in 2006 to bang Republicans over the head with?

Or do we look like we actually have our own plan or look like we’re reaching out to Republicans to solve something that as Andy pointed out they see as a problem?

GWEN IFILL: Is there any way to know at this stage which party is more guilty of overreaching, the Democrats who are saying, you know, "heck no," or the Republicans who are saying, "our way or the highway on private accounts"?

AMY WALTER: Well, what I’ve seen in looking over the different polls is that Democrats have a slight advantage when you ask who do you think will do a better job in handling this issue?

But you know what? I think that Democrats might have cried wolf few too many times in campaigns on this issue. It was an issue brought up in ’96, and ’98, and 2000.

They always made this argument that Republicans were going to cut the Social Security. At some point I think voters became very wary of that argument. And they are willing at least to listen to the Republicans.

So I think they have a little bit of a gamble if they’re going to put all their eggs in this basket in 2006.

GWEN IFILL: Andy there’s a generational split here.

We’re not talking about everybody feels the same way, the way older voters feel is pretty starkly different from the way younger voters feel; that’s who the president at least has been trying to appeal to. Has it been working?

ANDY KOHUT: Twenty-five percent of the people over 65 years of age like this idea. Sixty-two percent of the people under 30 years of age like this idea.

Now part of the problem — part of the issue here is that younger people haven’t thought about this; they don’t care about it as much as older people do and even middle-aged people, the baby boomers.

And when people begin to think about this, the Democrats may have overplayed this or they may have been talking about this for a long time but the fear factor is very high.

People who say they oppose this, which is now most people in these polls, or a plurality of people or a large percentage of people in these polls say they worry that the investments will be risky, and they worry that ultimately down the line the guaranteed benefits won’t be covered.

One of the most important things about Social Security is it’s an anomaly. Eighty percent of the public told us that they like this program. Very few government programs where 80 percent say, "I like it."

And the aspect that they like especially among older and middle aged people is the social safety net, that this is a form of protection; anything that threatens that, even if it’s appealing like an opportunity society or getting a better return, people are very wary about that.

GWEN IFILL: If that’s true then why is it the more the president seems to talk about it, the more the public approval of his handling of the issue seems to go down?

AMY WALTER: Because what they’re doing is they’re more concerned about the down side than they are appreciative of the up side because they like the fact that Social Security is a form of protection.

And the president obviously has not sold that aspect. Even though he’s made the point that it’s not going to affect older people, (a), they probably don’t believe him and secondly, even middle aged people are increasing wary of the stock market.

You know, we asked this same question back in 2000 when the market was booming and we had 70 percent thinking it was a good idea. Things have changed. People look at the stock market differently than they did.

GWEN IFILL: Amy Walter, is there any sense of a turning point that’s coming up in the next few weeks or so that’s everyone is aiming for to make this move off the dime, this partisan split?

AMY WALTER: I really don’t see that. I think we’ll come down to this issue of this private account and whether there is some wiggle room on this issue from one side or the other. Democrats, as I said earlier, seem very, very unified.

GWEN IFILL: Solvency is not going to become part of this debate?

AMY WALTER: Well, solvency has become part of the debate. And I think that is really where the public has started to also be educated on that issue as well is that the issue of private accounts in and of itself is not going to solve the problem.

I think that that is the one thing actually that Democrats have done well to sell as much as the president has done well selling there is a problem.

GWEN IFILL: Briefly to you too do you think there is a turning point coming up, Andy?

ANDY KOHUT: Well, I think at some point the public will demand some action. And whether it will be a turning point in this period, I don’t know. But somewhere down the road that’s going to be the case.

GWEN IFILL: Andy Kohut, Amy Walter, thanks a lot.