MECHANICSBURG, Pa.—Sen. Rick Santorum has long believed in letting people invest their Social Security taxes in private stock-and-bond accounts, but to get his big idea enacted into law, a lot more people will have to believe as well.
Santorum learned this week that persuading people to make fundamental changes in Social Security won't be so easy. Virtually all Democrats in Congress oppose President Bush's call to fund new private accounts by diverting wage taxes that now pay for Social Security benefits. And Republicans are split. Many lawmakers went home during this week's congressional recess to check constituents' views. Santorum, one of the idea's more avid advocates, took a five-day tour through his home state of Pennsylvania trying to sell it to voters.
He got quite a mixed reaction.
There are supporters, particularly among the young.
"I don't want to trust the government with my money," Sara Callan, 20, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh, said at one of the senator's standing-room-only town hall meetings.
There are skeptics.
"I'm leery," said Gordon McKiernan, 81, a retired human-resources worker from Mechanicsburg. "Some people don't know the difference between a stock and a bond."
And there's outright hostility, sometimes punctuated by moans, hisses and heckling.
"Why are we intending to tamper with a system that works?" asked Edward Pace, 60, of Oakland.
For Santorum, 46, a conservative Republican and the chairman of a key Social Security subcommittee, what he heard underscored two things.
One, he knows he'll have to compromise to get any plan that would allow personal accounts. The only thing he rules out is cutting benefits for those now 55 and older. Anything else, including raising taxes, is possible. "All ideas are on the table," he said.
Two, he has to keep selling. "Congress isn't going to make a decision on this unless there is support from the American people," he said.
Santorum supported the idea of letting people invest their own Social Security taxes long before Bush made it the centerpiece of his second-term domestic agenda. Six years ago, Santorum pitched the idea at a Social Security conference convened by President Clinton. "My only trip on Air Force One," he recalled.
Armed with a PowerPoint slide show and bolstered by a president who shares his vision, Santorum worked to build support in 10 town-hall meetings across Pennsylvania. He noted with disappointment that he was holding more meetings on the topic this week than all 54 of his Senate Republican colleagues combined.
He started by arguing that Social Security is in jeopardy. The baby boom generation starts retiring in 2008. It will live longer and draw more benefits than previous generations. And a declining birthrate means there'll be fewer workers to finance those Social Security checks.
"This demographic perfect storm is in the process of happening," Santorum said. He concedes that private accounts, whatever their virtues, won't fix Social Security's solvency problem.
His main complaint is that paying Social Security taxes is a poor investment. Most Americans will get back only about what they paid in, with no gain, he said. All would get bigger retirement checks, he said, if they invested the money themselves.
The crowds were hard to read. Some were genuinely interested, but many were sent by interest groups on both sides, in large part to influence local media coverage.
Before one meeting in Johnstown, an opponent of private accounts passed out questions for college students to ask.
After a meeting in Pittsburgh, Santorum said he discounted criticism because it came from people dispatched by groups such as the AARP, the powerful seniors lobby, which opposes private accounts. He lauded the positive reaction from young people—"those who didn't come here with a political ax to grind"—but many were from the College Republicans group at the University of Pittsburgh.
Those supporting private accounts tended to be younger, and most said they thought they could do better by investing.
"I did the math. If I start investing when I'm 23, I'll do a lot better," said Callan, who hopes to become a teacher. She's a College Republican.
"Something has to be done," said Joseph Motzko, 19, a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh. "I don't know much about stocks. But it can work out if you have help from somebody who knows what they're doing."
Opponents and skeptics took several tacks. Some said the threat to Social Security was exaggerated. Some said expanding the wage tax could solve the problem. Some said it was too risky to hazard their retirement in financial markets.
"This is a manufactured crisis," said Alex Bradley, 24, a health-care worker from Bloomfield. He complained to Santorum that he didn't explain how the government could afford trillions for tax cuts and the Iraq war but nothing to bolster Social Security.
Santorum said the tax reductions were "outside" the system and that the Iraq war was a one-time expenditure. Several in the Pittsburgh audience moaned and hissed.
Nicholas Gresh, 38, a high school teacher from Nanty Glo, said he objected to taking tax money out of the system to create personal accounts. Rather than shoring up Social Security, he said, that would accelerate the date when the system slips into insolvency.
Instead, he said, Social Security taxes should apply to incomes above the current cap of $90,000. "Why aren't those monies taxed? That's the fix," he said to scattered applause.
"That's an option on the table," Santorum said. "That's an option I may embrace if that's what it takes to get a deal."
"Whatever you do is going to affect me," said Kim Miller, 28, from Mount Lebanon, who said she'd been burned by stock-market losses. "What happens if we're at the point where we're retiring and the market is doing what it's been doing the last few years?"
Santorum said the account would start to phase out of stocks and into safer investments as a person neared retirement.
In the end, Santorum said, the turnout and the intensity of questions signaled that interest is high and people are still sorting through the debate.
"We're very early in the process," he said. "There's a lot of education to do."
To see Santorum's PowerPoint slide presentation, go to www.santorum.senate.gov. For counter-arguments, see the AARP's Web site at www.AARP.org
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SANTORUM
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050224 Santorum bio
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