Monday, March 29, 1999

Social Security fix is Bunning priority

Senator intends to have impact

Enquirer Washington Bureau

        WASHINGTON — Despite his freshman status, Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., fully intends to be a major player in this year's Social Security debate.

        Whether that's a realistic expectation remains to be seen, observers say.

        During the last eight of his 12 years in the House, Mr. Bunning served on the House Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security. He was chairman of that subcommittee from 1995-98. Mr. Bunning also held a series of major hearings on alternatives for Social Security's future during 1997 and 1998.

        No one doubts his credentials on the issue. The question is whether he will stand out in a chamber where many members also have considerable Social Security expertise.

        Many of them have another advantage: They sit on the Senate Finance Committee, the key panel for Social Security reform and one that doesn't have Mr. Bunning as a member.

        That doesn't faze Mr. Bunning, however. “I am going to be a player on this issue,” he said.

        Many of the key Senate Finance members know him well, Mr. Bunning said, because he

        has served with them on House-Senate conference committees.

        Mr. Bunning introduced a major Social Security reform proposal earlier this month. It's highlighted by a provision that would allow younger workers the option of directing part of their Social Security payroll taxes into private investment accounts.

        “His bill seems to be pitched somewhere in the middle (of Republican proposals), and it could be the kind of thing that people use as a compromise measure,” said Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank.

        Those who figure to play prominent roles in the upcoming debate include Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., chairman of the Senate Budget Committee; Phil Gramm, R-Texas, chairman of the Senate Banking Committee and a member of the Senate Finance Committee; Rod Grams, R- Minn.; Rick Santorum, R-Pa.; and Judd Gregg, R-N.H.

        Mr. Tanner said he thinks Mr. Bunning's name can be added to that list. “People on the Hill tell me he (Bunning) is a player. Because of his institutional knowledge, he is being taken seriously,” he said.

        Norm Ornstein, congressional analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, said Mr. Bunning's freshman status in no way precludes him from having an impact. Freshmen, he said, make major impacts on issues all the time.

        “Having said that, however, I am highly skeptical he will be a key player,” Mr. Ornstein said. “This is not an issue where he will be filling a vacuum.”

        Also questioning Mr. Bunning's role is Max Richtman, executive vice president of the Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. “He (Bunning) thinks he is,” Mr. Richtman said when asked if Mr. Bunning would be a major player.

        But he noted that Mr. Bunning is not a member of Senate Finance, the panel with jurisdiction over the issue. “Every senator is a player, but to be a major player, I think you also have to be chairman of that (Finance) committee or a member of the committee of jurisdiction,” Mr. Richtman said.

        Regardless, Mr. Bunning already has made a presentation on his bill to a meeting of the Senate Republican Conference. And he will be making another one during a retreat of Senate GOP members in Williamsburg, Va., next month.

        The idea of establishing private investment accounts, which Mr. Bunning's bill shares with several other proposals, already is causing friction between Republicans and Democrats in Congress.

        Many of the latter, especially House Democrats, think private investment accounts would destroy the system.

        “Having a voluntary opt-out is a recipe for destroying the system. Not everyone cares or understands that, but it's true,” said Henry Aaron, an economist at the Brookings Institution.

        Mr. Aaron said if that happens there is not going to be enough money left to pay the benefits of those who decide not to open investment accounts. “If that happens, Social Security collapses,” he said.

        But Mr. Tanner disagrees, saying that Mr. Bunning's bill, if anything, doesn't go far enough. “I think it is the only (idea) that preserves Social Security without an enormous tax increase.”


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- Social Security fix is Bunning priority