PARKERSBURG, W. Va. – President Bush on Tuesday turned a government file cabinet in the hills of West Virginia into his Exhibit A for why Social Security (search) needs urgent change.
To dramatize Social Security's future solvency problem, the president peered into the four-drawer ivory cabinet inside the Bureau of Public Debt (search) office here along the Ohio River. In the second drawer was a white three-ring binder filled with pieces of paper providing physical evidence of $1.7 trillion in Treasury bonds that back Social Security benefits.
"Imagine," Bush said in a speech a short time later at West Virginia University (search) at Parkersburg. "The retirement security for future generations is sitting in a filing cabinet.
"It's time to strengthen and modernize Social Security for future generations with growing assets that you can control, that you call your own — assets that the government can't take away."
Democrats quickly labeled Bush's trip to Parkersburg as nothing more than a gimmicky photo-op meant to mislead Americans into thinking that drastic reform is needed to fix the system's solvency problems.
The pieces of paper Bush saw are not real Treasury securities. In today's computer age, investors no longer get honest-to-goodness Treasury bonds they can hold in their hands. However, by law, the bureau creates paper bonds to put in the file cabinet just in case anybody, like Bush, wants to see the trust fund.
While the paper IOUs are not negotiable instruments, they still represent trust fund Treasury bonds that are backed by the full faith and credit of the United States.
"Americans who paid into Social Security are legally entitled to have that money fund Social Security until 2052 — as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office — just as all other investors in U.S. bonds are entitled to their return on their investments," Rep. Charles B. Rangel, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Ways and Means, said in a statement.
Both points were later reinforced as the Senate held a 70-minute mock debate on the issue pitting. The debate, organized by the respective parties' policy committees, was merely an exercise because neither the House nor Senate has yet produced proposed legislation.
"You can't pay benefits with IOUs. You have to pay it with cash," said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., during an increasingly rare occasion when senators questioned each other in the civil manner envisioned by the Founding Fathers.
Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., criticized the president's proposal to create private investment accounts, saying, "It means that the Social Security trust fund will run out of money sooner."
Bush is facing an uphill battle in his effort to convince the public that Social Security requires some major changes, and that private retirement accounts should be part of the solution.
The president has proposed letting younger workers divert the equivalent to 4 percent of income subject to Social Security taxes into a personal investment account. The administration says such accounts have the potential to offer greater payments to retirees, plus offer an inheritable asset should a worker or retiree die.
Democrats, on the other hand, say the administration is proposing to drastically alter the system when more modest changes would ensure the system's future solvency. They say Bush's visit to the Office of Public Debt — the latest stop on his nationwide Social Security road tour — was a fitting location because they contend his plan will weigh the nation down in debt.
In a letter to the president, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi asked Bush to publicly express the government's commitment to reimburse the trust fund all the payroll taxes that the government has diverted for other uses.
"It is simply wrong to suggest that the Social Security trust fund does not exist, or that the securities held by the trust fund are merely pieces of paper," the letter said. "For a president to even suggest that the federal government might, for the first time, default on a security backed by the full faith and credit of the United States unnecessarily misleads American workers about the health of the Social Security program."
After a Cabinet meeting later in the day at the White House, Bush urged lawmakers to act on the federal budget.
The House and Senate last month approved dueling budgets with divergent appetites for Bush's recipe of curbing rampant deficits by reining in benefit programs for the first time since 1997. The House's outline endorsed even deeper reductions in Medicaid and other programs than Bush proposed.
"It's going to be an interesting set of negotiations," Bush said.