Published March 28, 2005
BEDFORD, Iowa – Assigned to put President Bush's Social Security ideas into a bill that can pass Congress, Charles Grassley is finding little clamor for it among the people who have kept him in the Senate for 25 years.
"What I need to hear people say is, 'We expect you to fix this,'" Grassley said in between town hall meetings. "I'm not hearing that."
At each stop in an Easter week marathon of meetings in 19 counties, the 71-year-old chairman of the Senate Finance Committee tries to make the case that the federal pension system protecting millions of older Americans from poverty is in trouble.
A two-word question from Randy Simmons — "Social Security?"— becomes the cue for Grassley's 10-minute spiel, complete with brightly colored charts and reams of complex tables.
The Republican senator recites a half-dozen options being considered, including raising the retirement age, raising the payroll tax and cutting benefits. He offers no preference, saying everything is on the table. He favors private accounts but says they alone will not ensure solvency of the system.
If nothing is done, Grassley warns his audience, Social Security will go broke by 2042. If Congress waits just one more year to fix it, the cost will be another $600 billion.
"Do you have any questions?" he asks.
"Where do you want to start?" replies Simmons, a 52-year-old insurance executive who says he has begun planning for retirement. Scratching a neatly trimmed and graying beard, Simmons lingers until the audience has filed out of the city council chambers.
He grabs Grassley's arm. "Don't raise the retirement age," he says. "Some people want to work all their life and that's fine. Some of us want to retire while we can still enjoy it."
Grassley nods. Then he gets back on the road for the next town meeting. Simmons makes it clear afterward that he trusts Grassley's judgment. "I think there's no easy answer, but I think he's on top of it," Simmons said.
Iowa is one of the most politically engaged states in the nation. In 2004, 70 percent of Iowans voted, well above the 60.7 percent nationwide participation rate. The Iowa caucuses, the first event on the presidential primary calendar, make the state inordinately influential in determining the major-party candidates for president every four years.
At each of Grassley's stops, Social Security is high on a list of topics that also include trade, farm policy and education. The mixed message he is getting is not the one the White House wanted when a week earlier Bush urged lawmakers to meet with people in their states and districts, then return to Washington ready to start exchanging ideas for a Social Security bill.
House Republicans are skittish, telling the senators they should make the first move. That means whatever legislation is written will have to start with Grassley. He says he will convene his committee this summer to draft a bill.
Gordon Kokenge, a former member of Iowa's Transportation Commission who is in his 60s, shows up at a meeting in Clarinda with a simple question. "I just think they have to do something," he said later. "I'm not sure he feels they can get anything done. I think they might end up just tweaking it."
One troubling aspect of Grassley's town meetings is the demographics: Everywhere Grassley goes, he sees a lot of people with gray hair, but not many young people, a group more likely to support changes to Social Security. According to the 2000 census, 14.9 percent of Iowans are 65 and older. That's the fourth-highest percentage in the nation; overall, 12.4 percent of Americans are 65 and older.
Marvin Adcock, a city councilman in Shenandoah, has little enthusiasm for Bush's idea of letting younger workers divert some of their Social Security taxes to personal retirement accounts.
"That isn't fixing the Social Security program," Adcock says. "I've had private accounts for 30 years. The market is very volatile."
Dave Williams is retired and already collecting Social Security. He does not like the idea of tinkering with it. "I think they need to leave it alone," he tells Grassley. "Privatization, I don't see how that's going to help anybody."
His 75-year-old brother, Robert, is more direct. A Democrat, Robert Williams suggests that the campaign for overhauling the program amounts to nothing more than an assault on the Social Security system.
"Social Security has always had enemies," he tells Grassley. "They are emboldened and dominatingly loud right now."
Grassley is somewhat heartened that people are skeptical rather than angry. "I haven't had more than four or five really grumpy people," he says.
His verdict at week's end? "I think it's very difficult for me to say today that we'll present a bill to the president."