Democrats' Strategy to Oppose Bush's Social Security Plan

Alex Chadwick talks with Rep. Sander Levin (D-MI) about the strategy of the Democratic Party to oppose the president's proposed overhaul of Social Security. Levin is the ranking member on the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And earlier I spoke with Michigan Congressman Sander Levin. He's senior Democrat on the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security. A recent report says most Democrats in Congress do not want to offer their own plans for Social Security but, Mr. Levin says, that doesn't mean Democrats are out of the debate.

Representative SANDER LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): Social Security is a valuable, valuable resource for people who retire, for people who lose a loved one, for people who become disabled. And it's been really an indispensable part of people being able to continue to live independently, to live their own lives. So while the president has been now outlining more of his proposals for privatization, what we've been doing is going out to the country and talking with people, telling them the facts about these privatization proposals and the more they hear, whether young or old, the less they like them.

CHADWICK: Wouldn't it be fair for the president or Republicans to say that what he has advocated is doing something for Social Security? The Social Security trustees say, `It will be in trouble by the year 2041. Certainly something should be done. Privatization is one idea. If you don't like that, offer up something else.'

Rep. LEVIN: No, because they're really not doing something for Social Security. First of all, the privatization proposals did not address the solvency issue at all, 2041 or 2052, when it would become a solvency issue depending on which projection you take. So that's point number one; it doesn't address solvency. Number two, their privatization proposals are to replace Social Security with a private system. So they're not doing something for Social Security. They're really doing something to the Social Security system.

CHADWICK: The president does propose or said that he endorses the idea of eventually making Social Security benefits progressive. Is that something that Democrats could accept; that is, wealthy people would get less out of the system than those in greatest financial need?

Rep. LEVIN: No, because when they say wealthy, their proposal would affect everybody who has annual earnings of $20,000 or more. And is somebody with 25,000 or 30,000 or 35,000 someone who is wealthy in terms of their annual income? No, not at all. That proposal was a major hit on middle-income wage earners in terms of their future retirement or their disability or if someone who is covered who is paying into Social Security died and left young children or a spouse.

CHADWICK: As normally tough a critic of the president as Michael Kinsley, the LA Times editorial page editor, has written a piece saying the president's to be congratulated for just addressing the problem of Social Security, that eventually you either have to raise taxes for it or cut benefits and people have to face that. How do you come down on that? I mean...

Rep. LEVIN: You know, we're willing to face it, but the only way to face the shortfall--it's not a question of bankruptcy because after the shortfall people would receive about 75 percent of their scheduled benefits. The only way to do it is, number one, to really resolve this question whether you want to replace Social Security with privatization and private accounts. That's the first order of business.

Once that's resolved, and I think the people of the United States have taken steps, their voices are being heard to resolve it, then we can sit down on a bipartisan basis as we did in 1983, my first year here, and address this shortfall. The president, instead of doing what was done 20-some years ago by President Reagan and Democrats in the Congress sit down on a bipartisan basis, he comes before the Congress. He had said it four years before when he was a candidate, he wants privatization, and says, `Members of Congress, here's what I want to do on Social Security and that is to have private accounts.' And before his address, his spokespeople spelled out what that would mean. It would mean massive benefit cuts. It would mean massive borrowing, trillions of dollars of borrowing. Those are bad ideas.

CHADWICK: Sander Levin is a Democratic congressman from Michigan. He's the ranking member of the House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security.

Congressman, thank you for joining us on DAY TO DAY.

Rep. LEVIN: Most welcome.

CHADWICK: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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