Congressmen Weigh Social Security Reform

Congressmen Weigh Social Security Reform

William Uttermann, a 57-year-old dentist from eastern Fairfax County, has started to notice small health problems from his years of work.

"There's a finite limitation to the human body," Uttermann said. "The back, the neck, the shoulders Ñ they all give out after a while."

Though his age and growing health troubles will eventually push him into retirement, Uttermann has never worried he would be incapable of covering his living expenses. He counted on his federal social security benefits to be his financial safety net.

But President George W. Bush's plans to overhaul the social security program has caused Uttermann to start worrying not just about his own benefits, but those of younger generations as well.

"Why is the president gambling with our nest egg?" he said.

Uttermann was one of many citizens at a recent town hall meeting of Northern Virginia residents on social security reform, sponsored by U.S. Rep. Jim Moran (D-8).

Moran is the only member of Northern Virginia's Congressional Delegation who is opposed to most of Bush's social security reform plans.

The other two local congressmen Ñ Frank Wolf (R-10) and Tom Davis (R-11) Ñ also have mixed feelings about some of the ideas being considered to fix the massive federal program. However, both lawmakers said the program is at risk and something needs to be done soon.

BUSH OUTLINED his plans for social security reform last month in the State of the Union address.

Saying the program's future is in a crisis, Bush announced that all options for reforming the federal program to make it sustainable remain on the table Ñ with the exception of increasing the federal payroll tax.

The federal system, in place since 1935, will start paying out more in benefits than it brings in starting in 2018, although thanks to its reserve funds, it will be able to pay full benefits until 2052. After that, it will be able to distribute 73 percent of benefits, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

Bush said he wants to give citizens the choice to opt out of traditional social security, and instead divert their payroll taxes into private investment accounts.

The personal accounts would do little to ensure the program's solvency in the coming decades. To do that, Congress may find itself faced with a choice: either raise taxes or cut benefits, according to the Northern Virginia lawmakers.

Bush has not yet submitted a formal proposal to legislators, but some ideas have included raising the $90,000 cap on federal payroll taxes, raising the retirement age from 65 to 67, or reducing benefits by as much as 40 percent.

THE LONGER the government waits to reform social security and ensure its long-term solvency, the more it will cost, Davis said. Plus, when the system starts to pay out more than it brings in, Congress will have to start tapping other areas of the federal budget.

"As a practical matter, 2018 is a tipping point," he said. "You don't want to be there because you'll be cutting education and defense. Every year you wait, it becomes a little tougher."

Davis said he is not sure about private accounts, though he said they do not help the program's solvency.

Ideally, he would like to avoid raising taxes to pay for social security and would also like to avoid cutting future benefits as well.

"I've got a healthy dose of skepticism," he said. "But I applaud the president for identifying the problems with the program."

Wolf said there is a consensus among many of his fellow legislators and his constituents that permanent solutions are needed soon.

"Most people would agree that something has to be done," he said. "There's a feeling that this thing has to be addressed."

As the nation's baby boom generation begins to retire in 2008, more citizens will be relying on social security benefits, Wolf said. That means both parties will have to come together to ensure the additional people with disabilities, widows and others will still have a reliable safety net in the years to come, he said.

"There should be a major effort to reach across the aisle and reach some consensus," he said. "This will have to be bi-partisan."

MORAN, on the other hand, said he believes the social security reform efforts are a ploy to dismantle and privatize an effective system.

"Social security throws a lifeline out to otherwise destitute and disabled seniors," he said. "There is no reason to reform or repeal or privatize it."

The real social security crisis, Moran said, is thanks to Bush's $2 trillion tax cut. That revenue could have kept the program solvent for the next 75 years, he said.

Moran said he is worried social security reform will leave senior citizens with substantial benefits reductions in the future.

Uttermann, the Fairfax County dentist, agreed. He said he is worried younger generations will be left without the program's full protection.

"It's been nice to know that social security will be there for me," Uttermann said. "I hope it'll still be there in a few years."