Addressing the Social Security Dilemma

This week, Rep. Bill Thomas, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, expressed interest in taking control of the Social Security and Medicare initiatives. Thomas outlined a broader legislative package than the one President Bush proposed, suggesting changes to private savings and pensions outside of Social Security. Washington Post reporter Jeffrey Birnbaum offers details.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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But, first, President Bush has had little success inspiring the American people to privatize some aspects of Social Security, but now a key lawmaker has signaled his intention to bring a measure to the House floor for a vote by June. Congressman Bill Thomas of California, chairman of the formidable House Ways and Means Committee, appears poised to make significant changes to Social Security and, beyond that, to the other third rail of American politics, Medicare.

Jeffrey Birnbaum is a columnist for The Washington Post who's been covering this story and he joins us in the studio.

Welcome, Jeff.

Mr. JEFF BIRNBAUM (The Washington Post): Pleasure to be here.

WERTHEIMER: Do Congressman Thomas' ideas mesh with what the president wants to do, what he's proposed or at least said he'll consider so far?

Mr. BIRNBAUM: Well, to be fair, we don't know exactly what Bill Thomas wants, which is exactly the way he likes it. But he probably will adopt the basics of what the president has said he wants, that is something on personal accounts as part of Social Security, though exactly how much those personal accounts will take up of the payroll tax that pays for Social Security, that's pretty much up in the air. It could be much smaller than the president is proposing.

And he, I think, likes the latest idea from the president which is to tailor the benefits so that poor people get all of the benefits that they are now expecting under current law. But the more income that someone makes, through the middle income and right through to the upper-income range, the lower their benefits will be compared to current law. In other words...

WERTHEIMER: It will be a highly controversial idea, won't it, to essentially make Social Security into a welfare program?

Mr. BIRNBAUM: Right. We should say straight up that Bill Thomas has an uphill fight. What he's trying to do is to widen the playing field so that he can add some more benefits to collect enough votes from fellow Republicans and maybe a few Democrats in the House to get the thing moving: pension benefit improvements, savings incentives, tax benefits to get people to save more, which are very popular with a wide range of people--IRAs, 401(k)s, expansions of those. There are also increased tax benefits for health coverage. And if a few of those benefits are stuck in here, those would be goodies that lawmakers would be more than happy to vote for.

WERTHEIMER: Do you have any notion what his thinking is on Medicare?

Mr. BIRNBAUM: Not exactly. One of the things he does want to do is to adopt a proposal that the insurance companies have been negotiating with House members for a while which is to add tax incentives to help pay for long-term care. What Bill Thomas would like to do would be to beef up savings in anticipation of end-of-life care essentially so that individuals will have a better chance of paying for that themselves rather than relying entirely on Medicare to do so.

WERTHEIMER: Bill Thomas has a pretty good track record when it comes to winning votes on the floor, but he's a controversial character, isn't he, Jeffrey? He's very sharp and harsh with members. This is the guy who tried to have the Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee arrested because they were trying to come into a meeting.

Mr. BIRNBAUM: Well, he would not win any popularity contests. But then again, not even his detractors can take away from him that he has been able to deliver. Like it or not--and many of them don't like it--they're saying, `Bill Thomas, take it away.'

WERTHEIMER: Jeffrey Birnbaum is a columnist for The Washington Post. He joined us in our studios.

Thank you very much for coming in.

Mr. BIRNBAUM: Thanks.

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