WASHINGTON – Future high-wage earners could see their traditional Social Security (search) checks replaced by the proceeds of the personal investment accounts proposed by President Bush, according to a report by the nonpartisan research agency used by Congress.
The traditional checks would disappear as the result of two factors: the cut in benefits the president has proposed for all people who open private accounts, and a change that would diminish checks by linking their growth to prices instead of wages, an option the president has said he would consider.
Both trends would have the effect of eliminating the Social Security check for a hypothetical group: someone born next year who goes on to a career as what Social Security considers a "scaled high earner," which this year is a person with annual average earnings of $56,091.
The White House dismissed the study and its chief assumption: that the percentage of income that a worker could put into his account would continue to grow over the years. Bush has proposed capping it at 4 percent of the income eligible for Social Security taxes. Another 8.4 percent of taxable income would continue to flow into the trust fund used to issue Social Security taxes.
The study surfaced as House Republicans, just back from a two-week break, vowed to press ahead with plans for legislation this year.
"This is like being for the Civil Rights Bill (search) in 1960," said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., emerging from a meeting of the rank and file. "You may not win but it makes you feel good and you're on the right side."
Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the third-ranking GOP leader, declined to offer a timetable for legislation, and the leadership omitted the measure from a list of bills it hopes to pass over the next two months.
Blunt and other Republicans attacked Democrats, who are virtually unanimous in opposing Bush's plans for personal accounts for younger workers.
The analysis was performed by the Congressional Research Service (search) at the request of Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y. It was based on an array of assumptions about how Social Security legislation might take shape and eventually effect high-wage earners.
"For these individuals, their entire Social Security income would be comprised solely of their individual account proceeds," said the report.
Other wage groups, as well as people retiring before 2071, when a person born next year would be 65, would still receive some form of traditional benefit check, according to the analysis.
The White House continues to push for the investment accounts, which it argues are necessary to cushion the blow of any future benefit cuts, but Democrats remain uncommonly united against the proposal, arguing that Bush is trying to kill off Social Security by siphoning off the tax revenues needed to provide benefit checks.
The office of Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, the top Democrat in the House, said the study proves "that advocates of private accounts are inaccurate to argue that the accounts would be a modest addition to Social Security and a carrot to enable passage of modest benefit cuts that preserve Social Security.
"Rather than preserve Social Security, private accounts would actually put us on the road to eliminating Social Security," Pelosi said.
White House spokesman Trent Duffy disputed that as well as the underpinnings of the study, saying, "It's based on an assumption that's not been decided yet (price indexing), so it's an exercise in futility and it doesn't represent the president's plan. The president doesn't anticipate any benefit changes until we work with the Congress."
Chief among the assumptions underlying the 13-page report was that workers will be able to save an increasingly large amount of their earnings in the private accounts. To date the basic principles outlined by the president have said workers will be able to contribute up to 4 percent of their wages covered by Social Security to the accounts, although the amount would initially be capped at $1,000.
"The president hasn't suggested that," Duffy said of the contribution increase assumed by the study's authors.
In addition, the research service assumed that workers would retire at 65, two years earlier than the current retirement age. Early retirement reduces the size of the traditional benefit check.
The report also assumed the use of price indexing when determining the size of traditional benefit checks, instead of the traditional link to wages, which are expected to grow faster.
Both assumptions would allow the private accounts to grow while the size of traditional benefit checks diminishes, creating a point in the future where the check is offset by the payout from the account, the report concluded.