Social Security redesign debated

Marc Major, 34, isn’t worried and has no plan to follow the Social Security debate.

Major, a Durham resident who just completed a master’s degree at Northwestern University, said young people don’t project the future well. “Besides,” he said, “there’s a really pervasive belief in my generation that it’s not going to be there anyway.”

Meanwhile, the older generation cares deeply. Members of Cary’s AARP chapter are devoting their monthly meeting Tuesday not to local history, their favorite topic, but to Social Security. AARP has eight chapters in the Triangle and 930,000 members in the state, united in the desire to fight President Bush’s plan to restructure the social insurance program.

“We’re scared to death,” said Olene Ogles, 74, an organizer of Tuesday’s meeting and a member of the AARP’s advocacy council. “Our goal is hopefully to keep them from destroying it completely.”

Bush wants to allow younger workers to invest some of their payroll taxes in the stock market. To improve the longevity of the program, he is also expected to propose some change in the formula that determines the annual cost-of-living increase in benefits. Another possibility is tying payments to life expectancy.

The battle begins in earnest next month when Bush is expected to announce more details about the plan, perhaps in his State of the Union address.

GOP stays cautious

For the moment, people on all sides of the issue are posing more questions than there are answers. They are also getting worked up.

How you feel about Social Security in North Carolina depends to some degree on how old you are and what you have at stake.

It also depends on whether you are a member of Congress.

The state’s senators and representatives may, at the moment, be following Social Security the most closely.

Republicans are in wait-and-see mode. They want to support Bush, who has made Social Security his top priority in his second term. Some, such as Sen. Richard Burr and new House members Virginia Foxx of Banner Elk and Patrick McHenry of Cherryville, campaigned for private accounts.

Conservative groups, including Raleigh-based Citizens for a Sound Economy, are calling on Republican legislators, one by one, reminding them of their past promises. They have visited Republican Reps. Howard Coble of Greensboro, Robin Hayes of Concord and McHenry.

But some GOP lawmakers are cautious about wholesale changes.

“This is going to be a very tough lift for all of us,” said Coble, the longest-serving member of North Carolina’s congressional delegation.

Coble has been battling the perception that Republicans would dismantle Social Security since he first ran for Congress 20 years ago.

He cut an ad during that campaign, with his aging parents sitting on a front porch, saying Coble would never hurt Social Security.

“My mama said, ‘If he does, I’ll take a switch to him,’ ” Coble said in an interview.

Coble’s mother is now 95, and she still would, Coble said.

Coble said he favors fine-tuning rather than overhauling. He finds personal savings accounts “not to be offensive,” although he said it’s too soon to stake out a position on a plan that has not been presented.

“It’s a long way between here and where we tie this ship to the dock,” he said.

Allen Page, state director of Citizens for a Sound Economy, said news reports have exaggerated Republican skittishness. Page said he thinks Congress is resolved.

“Most people know that something needs to be done,” he said.

Dems gird for battle

Many of the state’s Democrats say they will fight Bush’s plan vigorously. They argue that Bush wants to dismantle the most enduring of the New Deal programs, meant chiefly as a security blanket for the poor, not a private retirement fund.

“This is a president who sees his role as fundamentally changing the way this country works,” said Rep. David Price, a Democrat from Chapel Hill. “This is an audacious president, an audacious administration and audacious, in my opinion, in a very dangerous way.”

Price and Rep. Bob Etheridge, a Democrat from Lillington, have each held town meetings in the Triangle on Social Security. They argue that taking money out of the payroll tax pool and putting it into private accounts would do nothing to cure the long-term problem — that Social Security will one day be paying out more money than is coming in.

They say they are open to other solutions for preserving the program but that their primary goal now is to block the president.

Calls and letters mount

Constituents are starting to write. Letters and calls on Social Security in the past two months outnumber those on any other topic. Staffers in Price’s office say the mail is running 10-1 against a major overhaul; in Hayes’ office, the ratio is about 7-3.

On Capitol Hill, North Carolina’s delegation does not have great influence on what will happen; no North Carolina members sit on the key committees that will hear testimony and write legislation.

They will be under considerable pressure from their respective parties to toe the party line. Republicans have healthy margins in the House and Senate but do not want any members to stray on such a major proposal.

North Carolina members will try to exert their influence elsewhere — Sen. Elizabeth Dole as a member of the Republican leadership team, Price as co-chairman of the House Democrats’ budget strategists.

Rep. Mel Watt, a Democrat from Charlotte, will take the lead for black Americans as chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. Watt and the caucus’s 42 other members met with Bush last week and reminded him that 40 percent of African-Americans rely on Social Security as their only source of retirement income.

So far, the loudest voices have been from those hugely in favor or against.

Brian Toomey, new director of the Piedmont Health Services clinic in Carrboro, said he hears little from his clients about Social Security, yet many rely on Social Security as their only source of income.

Forty percent of the center’s clients are uninsured, and the rest rely on Medicaid and Medicare for health care. They are busy figuring out the last major policy change, on prescription drugs, and whether they’ll be eligible for them. They don’t have time to deal with Social Security.

Jimmy Soni said he worries about Social Security while he watches other Duke University sophomores fret over basketball, bikini parties and other stuff.

“This and health care will be the definitive issues of our generation,” Soni said. “And nobody cares.”

Washington correspondent Valerie Bauerlein can be reached at (202)662-4380 or