Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Social Security Surplus????

I read this and could not believe my eyes:

Surplus? What Surplus?

By Charlie Cook
Tuesday, June 28, 2005

For those of you who might have been on vacation or otherwise distracted last week, House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Thomas, R-Calif., and a number of other House Republicans proposed the creation of private investment accounts to be funded out of the Social Security surplus.

Hello, a Social Security surplus?

Last time I checked, President Bush had given an impassioned State of the Union speech trying to persuade Congress and the country that the Social Security system was headed toward insolvency.

Indeed, the debate wasn't about if Social Security was going to go belly-up, it was about when. Now Thomas and some of his fellow House Republicans want to fund a program out of the Social Security surplus?

Anyone who thinks that you can sell members of a typical Rotary or Kiwanis Club, or American Legion or VFW Post, or just about any other reasonably intelligent adult that there is enough of a Social Security surplus to buy a vente skim latte at Starbucks has been in Washington way too long. It boggles the mind to think that anyone believes that Republicans could sell this country the idea that there is a Social Security surplus.

Someone with massive long-term financial obligations but with a positive balance in checking and savings accounts does not necessarily have a surplus. A surplus is money over and above needs and obligations, and long-term Social Security obligations dwarf current and expected balances.

It goes without saying that there isn't an account in the U.S. Treasury where this money actually sits. And, it's true that the Social Security Trust Fund is used to make the deficit look smaller. But, what are they smoking at the Ways and Means Committee, and does the Drug Enforcement Administration know?

Like every other credible independent political analyst I know, I think it is very, very unlikely that Democrats can retake control of the House or Senate next year. Yes, I know it is a second-term, mid-term election, and that in five out of the six such "six-year-itch" elections, the party holding the White House incurred devastating losses. In fact, the average outcome in those six elections was a loss of 36 House and six Senate seats, enough to turn over control of both chambers if just an average outcome occurred.

But we keep reminding ourselves that the scarcity of vulnerable Republican seats in the House and Senate makes it almost impossible for the GOP to lose control.

Having said that, I don't think anyone has figured into the equation that Republicans would begin engaging in profoundly stupid and potentially suicidal actions that might prove us wrong and put them back into minority status.

There are two words that should give House Republicans pause before they take a leap aboard Thomas' proposal --- Rahm Emanuel. I am sure that Emanuel, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, is kind and loving to his wife and children and others in his immediate family.

But having known and watched the guy for almost 20 years, he does not strike me as an overly nice person. In fact, I'd lay odds that he would use a Louisville Slugger and treat like a piƱata any Republican foolish enough to sign onto this thing. The murder scene in "Fargo" will look like patty-cake compared to what Emanuel will do to those guys.

It does not take a particularly creative mind to conjure up the television ads Democrats would air to harpoon the suggestion of a surplus. Some of the better ones would probably include Bush's own words warning of an impending Social Security crisis. Even the least creative media consultant could successfully handle this job.

Just because there does not appear to be enough vulnerable Republican seats for the GOP to lose control of the House does not mean the party is free to do whatever it wants without regard to electoral consequences. If a party tries hard enough, it can succeed in blowing its majorities. History holds many examples of this.

The thinking that led to this proposal is a consequence of having members in safe seats who have not met a swing voter in years. Don't get me wrong; Democrats have an equal share of members whose actions make one wonder what planet they live on.

That said, it should not come as a big surprise that drawing such safe districts means that it takes mind-boggling misbehavior to even draw a credible opponent. Add a campaign finance system that is so imbalanced that incumbents typically face opponents spending less than $50,000 for the entire cycle, and members become insulated from having to wonder what an average Joe or Jane Citizen would think about a given solution.

While there are a number of factors that have led to the paucity of competitive districts, this episode makes California Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's case for him -- recalibrating districts would help to recalibrate Congress. If there were fewer slam-dunk districts for each party, then each side would have to look over its shoulder a bit more.

As someone who loves to see competition and wants to see more hot congressional races, regardless of who ends up winning, I say bring it on!

Charlie Cook's "Off To The Races" is published each Tuesday by National Journal Group Inc. For more information about National Journal Group's publications, go to


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