Social Security gets fewer words in U.S. Senate race

RALEIGH, N.C. – At times during their 2002 U.S. Senate campaign, it seemed Elizabeth Dole and Erskine Bowles were running for the office of Social Security commissioner.

Bowles, the Democratic nominee, criticized Dole for backing proposals that would allow workers to use a portion of their payroll tax for private investments.

The Republican, who would go on to win the election, shot back by holding up a blank sheet of paper at campaign stops, symbolizing what she called Bowles’ “do-nothing plan” on how to keep the system solvent as the population ages.

Two years later, as Bowles runs for Senate again – this time against Republican Richard Burr – he and Burr have rarely spoken successive sentences about the hot topic of two years ago.

In fact, the most substantive discussion about Social Security so far in North Carolina’s 2004 campaign season has come from Jim Snyder, the GOP nominee for lieutenant governor. He is stumping for state-funded retirement accounts for newborns.

It’s not as if the challenges that face the Social Security system have gone away in the last 24 months.

Under the pay-as-you-go system, current workers’ payroll taxes fund benefits for more than 47 million retirees and other recipients.

By 2018, the Social Security Administration projects that the program will be paying more in benefits than it collects. The shortfall could reach $3.4 trillion over the next 75 years.

With the number of Americans reaching retirement age expected to double by 2030, lawmakers must decide whether to cover the gap by reducing benefits, raising the retirement age or increasing payroll taxes.

In setting forward Bowles’ platform, his campaign Web site spends a few paragraphs discussing Social Security and Medicare. Burr has one paragraph on his site about the issue.

But the candidates have yet to really butt heads on the topic heading into Monday’s scheduled television debate.

“As the campaign goes on, we’ll hear some of those issues that people really do care about, and I think Social Security is right up there,” Burr predicted in a recent interview.

The candidates do have contrasting views on how to keep Social Security solvent for future generations without raising taxes or cutting benefits. Burr supports President Bush’s proposal to allow younger workers to fund voluntary personal savings accounts with money that now goes to their payroll taxes.

Bowles adamantly opposes any privatization of the system.

Barbara Kennelly of the Washington-based National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, who also opposes privatization, said most candidates have put Social Security on a back burner this election year.

“A lot of people aren’t talking about it,” she said. “I don’t think anybody wants to discuss it that much.”

The Iraq war, homeland security and the pre-eminence of the presidential election have pushed many so-called “kitchen-table issues” to the side, observers say.

“It seems this year that the domestic issues are not getting as much interest as foreign issues,” said Allan Page, state director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, which supports partial privatization.

Social Security is also an issue that can energize senior voters, who have high turnout and could sway the election.

And neither candidate – particularly Burr – wants to stray too far ahead of his parties’ presidential nominee on Social Security, said Chalmers Brumbaugh, a political science professor at Elon University.

“That presidential race tends to set the agenda more so in senate races than in non-presidential years,” Brumbaugh said.

Burr and Bowles have both stayed close to the positions of their parties’ presidential nominees, Bush and John Kerry.

Bush contends that voluntary personal savings accounts can help avoid a Social Security disaster without increasing taxes or changing benefits for retirees; Burr supports a similar plan.

“The president has always said, and I endorse, a plan that doesn’t jeopardize those that are in the system,” Burr said. “Doing nothing jeopardizes the system.”

The head of the General Accounting Office said in June it would cost $2.3 trillion to reform the system and create the personal accounts.

Like Kerry, Bowles is against Social Security privatization. He said the key to the program’s health “is promoting sound long-term fiscal policy” within the federal budget.

Partial privatization is “a risky scheme,” Bowles spokesman Carlos Monje said. “It’s a bad idea when it first came out and it’s a bad idea now.”

With five weeks left until Nov. 2, political groups are trying to raise the profile of the issue. Citizens for a Sound Economy plans to distribute paper doorknob hangers next month to highlight the differences between Bowles and Burr.

CSE doesn’t endorse candidates. Neither does the committee led by Kennelly, although its political action committee has donated $2,500 to the Bowles campaign.

Kennelly, a former Connecticut congresswoman and associate Social Security commissioner, said congressional candidates nationwide appear to be waiting to see who wins the White House before trumpeting their views.

“I can tell you, it’s going to be a hot issue … after the election,” she said.