ELIZABETH BRACKETT: It was a small crowd that came to hear Congressman Paul Ryan tout his plan to change Social Security. But this meeting in tiny Mukwonago, Wisconsin, was only one of 35 so called listening sessions the congressman held in 12 days in February. At each session Ryan ran through a 28-page PowerPoint presentation laying out his support for adding personal retirement accounts to Social Security.
REP. PAUL RYAN: The most humane way to fix Social Security is to include personal retirement accounts. Without those then you have no choice but to drastically cut benefits or raise taxes and that simply means you will consign current and future workers to a miserable rate of return on their payroll tax dollars.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Ryan explained that his plan would allow workers to divert their portion of the Social Security tax into a private investment account. He sells it by stressing the higher benefits he says retirees would get; in this example a two earner couple earning $70,000 a year.
REP. PAUL RYAN: Today Social Security is telling them when they retire they're supposed to get $3,100. Under the default plan, their monthly plan, if they annualized that money their benefit would be about $6,600 a month.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Ryan's constituents had plenty of questions for the 35 year-old congressman, many based on their own experience in investing and their view of government.
KEN GASPAR: So what assurances do we have that you're going to have this safety net and that you're not going to have some catastrophic thing happen to the stock market like you had four years ago and most of these people lost 20 percent off their retirement funds? How can we trust you with all this money again?
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Ryan insisted that the safety net will be there because the employer's contribution to Social Security still would go into the traditional system. There it would provide a retirement base and funding for disability and survivors benefits.
Ryan's southeastern Wisconsin district includes both rural farmland and the suburbs of Milwaukee. And as he hurried from one location to another, he said a person's age makes a big difference in how they look at changing the Social Security system.
REP. PAUL RYAN: So, Number one, anybody who is over the age of 55 is not affected. They will not have any benefit change whatsoever. So as soon as you convey that to them you just see sort of a collected sigh in the room. Oh, okay.
If you're about 45 to 55 you're thinking about retirement, and so you want to know what kind of thing this does for you, what this does for you. If you're under say 45, you want personal retirement accounts. Almost all young people realize the system is in jeopardy; it's going insolvent. And they just want a chance, a chance to get a better rate of return on their money and owning some of their own accounts.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The afternoon listening sessions brought out an older crowd, but Ryan did hear some support for personal accounts.
JOHN LUZNICKY: Personal accounts, they're a fantastic idea. And what I don't understand --
REP. PAUL RYAN: Wait let's get a microphone over there.
JOHN LUZNICKY: ...Is how in the world could anyone, especially younger people, could not be in favor of them. It's plain and simple. I'm 50, right? I'm right on the border. I'll get some benefit but not a lot of benefit. My kids are going to benefit extremely well. Why do people…why are they not in favor of it?
REP. PAUL RYAN: I think part of it is politics, part is philosophy. Philosophically or ideologically some people do not like the notion of social security being a system where individuals own their own accounts. They instead prefer the notion where the government controls their retirement and controls their benefits.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The first congressional district in Wisconsin is a swing district. President Bush won the district by 51 percent, and as the congressman brought his listening tour to the more urban areas of the district, the questions got tougher. In the Milwaukee suburb of Greendale, Ryan was peppered with questions on how personal accounts would be paid for.
DAVID HECKENLIVELY: Frankly, your numbers don't work for me and that's because, well, for one thing, any private accounts take money out of the system, not put money in. So if they were short of money before, they're going to be shorter in the future.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Ryan maintains that by borrowing $575 billion and capping the growth in government spending at 3.5 percent annually, Social Security would run a surplus by 2024. He says the system would remain solvent because people like his now three-year-old daughter would fund her own benefit when she retires.
REP. PAUL RYAN: She will get all of her benefit from her personal retirement account, but just in case, the safety net will be underneath to catch her when she retires. So the system will not have to pay her that traditional benefit because she'll get it from her personal retirement account. That's how you make this line go from here to there and bring it into solvency.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: But Ryan admitted that personal accounts were getting a mixed reception in his district.
REP. PAUL RYAN: I've done about 30 town hall meetings now this week; I've got about five more to go. And I would basically cut it into thirds, a third are for it, a third are against it and a third are still trying to make up their minds.
ELIZABETH BRACKETT: That gives the congressman and the White House a lot of work to do in months ahead.
REP. PETER DE FAZIO: There's a lot of confusion about privatization.
LEE HOCHBERG: Some 1,500 Oregon residents attended town hall meetings on Social Security this month. Many expressed serious concern about President Bush's proposed restructuring of the program.
WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: This current administration is the most fiscally irresponsible administration in the history of the entire universe.
LAURA BUSH: Ten-term Democratic Congressman Peter DeFazio heard from constituents in Coos Bay on Thursday. And here, as at other stops, DeFazio said the president's proposal to allow workers to divert Social Security taxes into private investment accounts is highly unpopular.
REP. PETER DE FAZIO: You know, my district voted for George Bush. This is my eighth town hall and I've had a handful of people come in and say "I'm with the president on this proposal, I think its great." I can count them on one hand out of more than, you know, I've seen 1,500 people in a couple of weeks on this issue.
LEE HOCHBERG: DeFazio's congressional district is a rural mixture of fishing, farming and logging towns. Coos Bay, on Oregon's Pacific Coast, is the largest harbor between San Francisco and Tacoma, Washington. Until recent lumber shortages, it was the busiest timber shipping port in the world.
There are almost 150,000 Social Security beneficiaries in the district, ranking it 19th of the 435 districts in the country. Constituents seem unclear about the need for the changes.
WOMAN: I'm interested to know what you think the motivation is for the president's proposals.
REP. PETER DE FAZIO: Well, you know, he has not confided in me.
LEE HOCHBERG: Although the president has yet to submit a specific plan to Congress, he has repeatedly warned that Social Security is heading for bankruptcy and is need of reform. But DeFazio told his constituents there's no crisis at all.
REP. PETER DE FAZIO: There's a possibility that 40 or 50 years from today Social Security will only be capable of paying 75-80 percent of what it promised. That's not a crisis. It's not looming bankruptcy. Anybody who uses those words is being incredibly reckless and irresponsible.
LEE HOCHBERG: DeFazio told the gathering the future shortfall can be avoided simply by requiring high wage-earners to pay into Social Security at the same rate low and average wage workers currently do.
REP. PETER DE FAZIO: Right now you only pay Social Security tax on the first $90,000 of income. If you lifted the cap like we've already done for Medicare and said okay, people are going to pay in on all of their income, the actuaries say that would more than solve social security's future financial problems.
MAN: Has anyone discussed the possibility of telling rich people, say, making $100,000 or more in their dotage that they're just not eligible for Social Security?
REP. PETER DE FAZIO: I don't support the idea that we would say that people of higher income don't get a benefit because I think the principle that FDR established, which was it's an earned benefit, still holds.
LEE HOCHBERG: Many questioned the president's proposal to allow Social Security funds to be invested in the stock market.
JOHN LUZNICKY:I would not recommend IRAs for one. I cashed mine out. I thought it was a really good decision before it dropped to basically nothing. Two years ago, my mom put $1,000 in for my wife. That $1,000 is at $74, so before someone would think that an IRA was a great deal, I would say no way.
REP. PETER DE FAZIO: I've talked to people in these town halls that say "You know, I was doing really well before the stock bubble burst and I didn't think I was really ever going to need the Social Security, it was going to be like fun money. Now I'm mostly living on my Social Security, my stock portfolio never came back."
LEE HOCHBERG: Some in the audience said they were concerned about the estimated one trillion dollars it could cost to transition to the new system and also the money powerful interest groups in Washington would spend to get the president's plan approved.
MAN IN AUDIENCE: What worries me right now is the money that I know is going to be spent to try to brainwash or whatever.
LEE HOCHBERG: DeFazio recognized the concern.
REP. PETER DE FAZIO: What seems to me is going to be the strategy is first of all they are going to try to convince people "you're not going to get anything. Social Security is going bankrupt." And then people will accept almost anything they'll say because it's better than not getting anything.
LEE HOCHBERG: Many left the town hall uneasy. 80-year-old Jean Hubbard characterized the proposed changes as good for investment brokers, but not for herself or her children.
JEAN HUBBARD: The logic is making Wall Street very happy I would think.
LEE HOCHBERG: DeFazio himself noted the considerable suspicion about the plan from a district that had voted for President Bush in November.
REP. PETER DE FAZIO: It's not popular with much of anybody except maybe the people who are going to manage the money and the people who want to kill Social Security.
LEE HOCHBERG: Congressman DeFazio will return to Washington this week believing the president has a hard sell ahead of him.