Members Gird to Talk Social Security at Home
The public relations battle within the House over Social Security will move into its next phase during the upcoming recess, as Republicans and Democrats will offer starkly differing messages to their constituents on the current state of the reform debate.
For the first time since the Social Security push began, House Republicans will go home to their districts with a substantive plan to sell. At the same time, the GOP’s introduction of a specific reform package has given Democrats a clearer target to sink. Both parties are sending their Members home with detailed recess kits and talking points to achieve their aims.
Republican leaders began their side of the message offensive Wednesday with a post-Conference press briefing designed to emphasize the party’s willingness to craft and debate a tangible solution to the Social Security problem.
“The most important thing is that we’re bringing ideas to the table,” said Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). The press event followed a Conference meeting that Hastert described as a “very tough talk, very open, very candid and, I think, very positive.”
GOP lawmakers received a briefing on the new plan — dubbed the “GROW” bill — from Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), the chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on Social Security.
Sources who attended the meeting said McCrery’s presentation was markedly different in style to that of Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas (R-Calif.) at the previous week’s conference.
In that case, Thomas declined to provide his fellow Republicans with any details of the bill and even discouraged one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), from answering any Members’ questions about the measure until after an unveiling event scheduled for later that day.
McCrery, in contrast, was described as clear and patient with lawmakers’ questions, an important point given that many Members still don’t completely understand the GROW bill.
“There’s a time for the heavy-handed and a time for the soft glove, and that’s why McCrery was presenting this,” said a GOP leadership aide.
Republicans also haven’t wasted any time testing the new bill on the public. A new poll, taken by Dutko Research June 21-26, presented two descriptions of the Social Security measure to 800 registered voters in order to gauge their response.
Interestingly, Republicans may be bringing back a word made famous in the political debates of the 1990’s — “lockbox.” One description of the bill in the poll said it would allow people to put their share of the Social Security surplus into a “personal account,” while another description said the money would go “into their own personal lockbox.”
The two descriptions were met with 59 percent and 60 percent approval, respectively. And Republicans were also pleased that a strong plurality of respondents — 42 percent — identified “strengthening Social Security” as the most important issue for Congress to address.
More negatively for the GOP, 52 percent of respondents said they were “less supportive” of President Bush’s Social Security proposals the more they heard about them
As they cautiously promote their own plan, or “first step,” Republicans will also continue to hammer the theme that Democrats have no plan and no ideas of their own to address Social Security.
“It’s interesting that the Democrats spend more time worrying about what they’re against than what they’re for,” said a Republican leadership aide.
Indeed, Democrats are looking to turn up their defensive efforts to try to poke holes in the GOP plan. They plan to argue that the proposal does nothing to “improve the long term solvency” of Social Security, would increase the federal debt and remains an attempt to privatize the system.
“Our message is: Social Security is not for sale,” House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said. “We don’t believe that Social Security stability is for sale. We don’t believe [Thomas] is going to be able to put enough sweeteners in this bill to get the votes to undermine Social Security, which is what they want to do.”
Democrats say they will ultimately offer an alternative of their own — a plan for solvency and protecting the trust fund — once they have fully educated the public about the pitfalls of private accounts. In the meantime, the party will continue its call for a bipartisan sit-down with Republican leaders to “come up with a bipartisan solution,” sources said.
The minority party already has held some 900 town halls and forums across the country, and House Democratic leaders are asking Members to each hold at least one more to surpass the 1,000 mark over the next 15 days. Many of those events will be held over the recess when Members are back in their districts.
Hoyer said Democrats could not hope for better timing for their forums given the Republicans’ latest proposal. He said the American public already is in disagreement with GOP efforts to privatize the system, and Democrats will use the recess to try to deepen that opposition.
“I think it’s a shell game and a stalking horse for private accounts,” Hoyer said of the latest GOP plan. “We believe the newest proposal provides more reason to go out and educate the public about what they are trying to do.”
In a “Dear Colleague,” distributed this week to House Democrats, leaders instructed Members to hold town halls, Internet town halls, speeches and round table discussions with constituents. The leaders urged Members to focus on minorities, young people and rural Americans.
“Republicans are not giving up, and neither can we,” wrote Hoyer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
To bolster their arguments, Democrats are also relying on a report put together by Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.) outlining the flaws in the House and Senate Republican proposals. Members are expected to use that report when talking to constituents over the break.
Leaders are also arming House Democrats with a recess packet that urges Members to make Social Security and veterans’ benefits their priorities this recess. In the document, Pelosi told her Caucus to characterize the latest Republican Social Security proposal as just another version of President Bush’s call for private accounts, calling it another attempt to “replace a guaranteed benefit with a guaranteed gamble.”
“Like the Bush privatization plan, the Republican proposal would divert payroll contributions to create private accounts,” Members are told. “The only difference is cosmetic — the Republican plan would still cut guaranteed benefits.”