Even in Retirement, Moynihan Stirs Debate

The leader of the Democratic Party in the U.S. Senate

doesn’t have much use for President Bush’s Social Security commission. (Jeez,

you’re saying, isn’t this a Wise Guys column from 1991? Is this the same kind

of technical snafu that results in last week’s lottery numbers getting published

again as yesterday’s? Or in last week’s lottery numbers getting published again

as yesterday’s?)

Of Mr. Bush’s appointees to the commission, Senator Tom

Daschle said that “the panel members on this Social Security commission would

be the equivalent of oil companies” having a say on the future of the Arctic

National Wildlife Refuge. Your correspondent’s friends and acquaintances were

stunned. Said one: “Does this mean that the oil companies do not have a say on the future of the

Arctic National Wildlife Refuge? Isn’t that like having a zoning board made up

of only preservationists?” Another, not quite so persnickety, tried to guess

the identities of Mr. Bush’s appointees, figuring they would be the usual

suspects: white middle-aged male Republican investment bankers and big-thought

think-tank types who can’t wait to get hold of the nation’s retirement money so

that they might join more country clubs, drink more martinis and laugh more

often about the plight of the poor. Mr. Daschle’s words were that ominous:

“This is a stacked, completely orchestrated effort to come to a desired

result,” the Senator said. Oh, brother, thought I: W. must’ve recruited the

Yale baseball team from 1965.

Imagine our surprise when the news programs ran a portion of

the President’s statement on Social Security, and there in the background was

the slightly stooped figure of a certain former United States Senator who,

hunched or not, managed to tower over Mr. Bush and everybody else, for that

matter.

Daniel Patrick

Moynihan(for those new to  this

business, he was the man Hillary Rodham Clinton replaced in the U.S. Senate)

not only is among the commission’s members (and therefore, in Mr. Daschle’s

view, the moral equivalent of an oil-company executive pondering the fate of

unspoiled polar icescapes), but he will serve as co-chair of Mr. Bush’s

commission.

Apparently the rules governing Senatorial courtesy no longer

apply once you retire. One could hardly imagine Senator Daschle speaking so

dismissively of any one of his 99 fellow club members. But former Senator

Moynihan, having resigned his membership effective last January, is fair game;

his presence on a Social Security commission can be condemned as part of a

“stacked, completely orchestrated effort” to rubber-stamp the President’s wishes.

Mr. Daschle’s memory is as bad as his manners, for surely he

knows that Mr. Moynihan would hardly involve himself in anything that smacks of

pro forma . The former Senator’s

intellectual curiosity, his willingness to question received political dogma,

was among the traits that separated him from most of his colleagues. There is

every reason to believe that Mr. Moynihan will bring those very qualities to

the commission for which Mr. Daschle has so little regard.

In fact, while the

Democratic leader was fulminating about Mr. Bush’s appointees, Mr. Moynihan was

outlining his ideas to save Social Security, and he is not, wouldn’t you know,

in lock step with Mr. Bush’s emphasis on partial privatization of the trust

fund. Yes, Mr. Moynihan supports the idea of creating personal retirement

accounts, with workers controlling and investing a small portion of their

Social Security funds. Unlike some Republicans, however, Mr. Moynihan doesn’t

believe that partial privatization alone will keep the system solvent.

In a speech on May 2 sponsored by the Center for National

Policy, Mr. Moynihan made it clear that neither Mr. Bush nor the

pro-privatizers in Congress can rely on the market to save them from making

tough decisions if this centerpiece of the New Deal is to celebrate its

centennial in style. In his speech, Mr. Moynihan revisited his contention that

the Consumer Price Index overstates inflation and therefore triggers

unwarranted cost-of-living increases. That, he said, ought to be fixed

immediately. Furthermore, he proposed raising the retirement age to 70 by 2060,

taxing Social Security benefits just like any other pension benefit and raising

the benefit base to $99,000. These changes, he said, would keep Social Security

in the black, so much so that the Social Security tax could be cut from its

current 12.4 percent to 10.4 percent. The 2 percent saving would be used to

create individual retirement accounts, controlled by the workers themselves.

Mr. Daschle has little use for the latter reform, and Mr.

Bush doesn’t seem inclined to consider the difficult choices that, in Mr.

Moynihan’s view, have to accompany partial privatization. Still, though, it’s

not hard to figure where Mr. Moynihan’s sympathies are.

Of Mr. Bush, the former

Senator said: “Let it be recorded that the 21st century began with an avowedly

conservative President espousing perhaps the most progressive social insurance

measure since the New Deal.”

Imagine what Tom Daschle will make of that.