Robert B. Reich, a co-founder of The American Prospect, is a Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley. His website can be found here and his blog can be found here.
The Congressional Budget Office, in a report released yesterday, says the government will be forced to take $9 billion from the so-called Social Security surplus in fiscal year 2001 to make ends meet. The news undoubtedly will elicit a new round of fancy-dance explanations from the Bush administration for how it plans to avoid dipping into the Social Security surplus next year, and will add more fuel to the Democrats' charge that the president's tax cut has put Social Security in jeopardy. Expect the decible level to grow when Congress returns to Washington and both sides go to battle over the 2002 budget.
The Great American Debate about how to use the largest budget surplus in history has come to a choice between the giant $1.2 trillion tax cut recently passed by the Senate and the gargantuan $1.6 trillion cut passed by the House. This week House-Senate conferees begin picking a figure between these two. If future historians ever want to illustrate both the pathetic paucity of political debate at the start of the 21st century and the near-bankruptcy of the Democratic Party, they could do no better than to use this example.
Last week the Congressional Budget Office confirmed what every semiconscious observer of the budget process had known for months: that proposed spending by President Bush and Congress would force the government to take $9 billion from the ostensibly sacrosanct Social Security surplus. And over the following three years, CBO projected, the government would swipe another $21 billion--assuming, optimistically, that the president and Congress didn't spend even more money.
The way a debate is framed and choices are posed is often more important than which
option is chosen. That's because the framing of the debate sends a powerful message to
the public about what's at stake. It sets the boundaries of discourse. For politicians to stray
beyond requires too much explaining and runs the risk of appearing irrelevant or radical.
In Washington, a "gaffe" occurs when a high-level official accidentally says what he means. The Bush administration has been remarkably gaffe-free so far, with almost everyone sticking to the same bland script. All except Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, that is, whose gaffes offer a glimpse into the real philosophy of the Bush corporation that now runs the United States. O'Neill's latest occurred in a recent interview with the Financial Times in which he questioned why the government should provide Social Security, Medicare or any other social insurance. "Able-bodied adults should save enough on a regular basis so that they can provide for their own retirement and, for that matter, health and medical needs," he said.