Commission Impossible

All successful commissions are the same; all unsuccessful
commissions are unsuccessful in their own way. This is how the President's
Commission to Strengthen Social Security marked its singular sort of failure: A
few days after being summoned to the White House for a chat with George W. Bush,
co-chair Robert Parsons announced that the commission would not be putting out a
single, robust plan to reform Social Security--"the kind of plan the president
can sell to the Congress," as Bush economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey promised
last May. Instead, the commission would be putting out a "set of recommendations,
each of which raises different policy issues"--which is, politically speaking,
the kind of plan the president can ignore.

But Bush won't be alone. Back in June, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill
announced plans to raise $20 million from business groups to launch a grass-roots
campaign to promote privatization. The campaign has yet to materialize. "I
haven't seen a single sign of that," says Gerry Kavanaugh, policy director of the
Democratic National Committee (DNC). O'Neill "went around and made some speeches
and gave some comments," says Steve Robinson, the chief Social Security analyst
for Senate Republicans. "I think it just didn't get any traction." And in late
October, GOP Congressman Jim DeMint of South Carolina, backed by the Republican
House leadership, introduced his own middle-of-the-road Social Security
plan--effectively going over the commission's head.

So when Bush became the latest Republican to back away from the commission,
its critics were ecstatic. For months they had warned that conservative-style
reform would require either unpopular tax increases or equally unpopular cuts in
benefits. Now it looked like the White House had come to the same conclusion.
"They're essentially coming up with a way for [Bush] not to be tied to what they
produce, so that he can't be attacked," crowed Hans Riemer, an analyst with
Campaign for America's Future (CAF). "They clearly miscalculated the politics of
it," says the DNC's Kavanaugh. "I think they're rethinking the entire

This isn't the way it was supposed to be. From the beginning,
after all, the defining feature of the commission was predictability. To keep the
commission on a tight leash, the White House installed as its executive director
Chuck Blahous, a Lindsey aide at the National Economic Council. The commission
itself was more reliable than credible: Though all 16 appointees favored
privatization of one kind or another, only co-chair Daniel Patrick Moynihan,
World Bank consultant Estelle James, University of Pennsylvania professor Olivia
Mitchell, and former Minnesota Congressman Bill Frenzel rank among the top tier
of Social Security wonks. And the commission as a whole drew heavily on the
libertarian Cato Institute--the most ardent privatizers in Washington--not only
for its members (five of whom have past Cato connections) but also for its staff
(including press secretary Randy Clerihue, a former Cato flack, and Andrew Biggs,
a former Cato analyst).

But the commission's very predictability has proven to be its biggest
liability. In July the commission released an interim report assessing Social
Security in terms so absurdly pessimistic--the system, it said, was "broken"--and
easily refuted that, after weathering a torrent of criticism, the commissioners
themselves agreed to changes. And why not? The report had been written primarily
by the commission's staff, and many sections appeared to have been cribbed
straight from Biggs's Cato policy papers. "We had not seen the draft that became
public before it became public," concedes Mitchell. "There were a number of
people who would have benefited from having more input." But this was business as
usual at the commission. Riemer, who frequently checks the commission's monthly
public document folders, says that as late as August "there was no evidence of
any deliberation among the members of the commission--no memos or correspondence
from any commission member to the group."

Attempts to skew the witness panels in favor of private accounts (which was
opposed, according to The Washington Post, in a majority of the written
statements solicited by the commission) have produced their own brand of
hilarity. In order to get two out of three witnesses on a "Social Security Reform
and Women" panel to speak for privatization, the commission staff stacked the
deck by selecting Suzanne Taylor, a past president of the National Association of
Women Business Owners (NAWBO), and Eloise Anderson, a welfare reform expert at
the conservative Claremont Institute. But the NAWBO has only about 8,000 members
(compared with, say, 500,000 in the National Organization for Women). The extent
of Anderson's previous expertise on Social Security consisted of a chat session
on the Town Hall Web site in which she described Social Security as "the mother
of all welfare programs" and recommended that "it should be killed and replaced
with individual account programs."

Similarly, a panel called "Social Security and Young Americans" featured one
speaker--CAF's Riemer--against privatization and three speakers in favor. Two of
the latter group came from the same camp: Meredith Bagby, founder of the youth
group Third Millennium, and Maya MacGuineas, currently a fellow at the New
America Foundation but also a member of Third Millennium's board. The third was
Amy Holmes, a former "director of campus outreach" at the conservative
Independent Women's Forum who had no obvious Social Security expertise. It
showed: She spent much of her allotted time attacking feminist groups, and her
testimony was an almost verbatim recitation of the testimony she delivered to the
House Ways and Means Committee over two years ago.

Of course, most of Washington had long since concluded that the
commission would be stacked. Few, however, expected it to be so politically
obtuse. Liberal groups were pleasantly surprised, for instance, that only a few
hours after the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) issued a stinging
critique of the interim report, the commission staff issued a written rebuttal
signed by Parsons and Moynihan. "They did exactly the wrong thing," says Peter
Orszag, a Brookings Institution fellow who helped write the CBPP document. "They
elevated us and demeaned the two co-chairs by responding to us."

At one press conference, Parsons and Moynihan seemed unable to agree on
whether the Social Security Trust Fund actually existed. Parsons hewed to the
White House line that Social Security's assets were an accounting fiction,
telling reporters, "There's no there there." Moynihan, sensitive to the danger of
telling Americans their lifetime contributions to the fund had suddenly vanished,
kept contradicting him. Social Security, Moynihan pointed out, "represents an
obligation that the federal government will honor."

Other commissioners seem to have fallen for their own spin. Sam Beard--the
Jack Kemp of private accounts--remains convinced that women, blacks, and
Hispanics will come around to Social Security reform, notwithstanding the
steadfast opposition of nearly every major feminist and civil rights group in the
country. "There's a big gap," Beard insists, "between what I find at the grass
roots and what I find among the leadership."

Indeed, it's telling that Beard, in arguing that privatization has wide
appeal, cites fellow Democrats Moynihan, Bill Clinton, Chuck Robb, and Bob
Kerrey. As a whole, the privatization movement seems stuck in the mid-1990s, when
Robb, Kerrey, and other prominent centrist Democrats flirted openly with Social
Security privatization. But Clinton eventually dropped the idea, while Robb and
Kerrey have since left the Senate. Many Democrats who still support full or
partial privatization, like Louisiana Senator John Breaux, are notably absent
from the current debate. Even Moynihan has been missing in action. After he
skipped a hearing in October, the White House spent several days squelching
rumors that he was going to quit; he has devoted little of his enormous prestige
to defending the commission's work.

"What's to defend?" argues William Galston, a former Clinton adviser and an
influential New Democrat. "If the point of the commission was to genuinely and
openly explore options, then that commission was clearly poorly designed," he
says. "If the point of the commission, on the other hand, was to build broad
support for an outcome that had been foreordained--well, it was poorly
constructed for that purpose, too."

Some privatization activists, of course, blame the White House's
lethargy on September 11. But it's clear that the commission's work has long
inspired something less than confidence among many Republicans, particularly in
the House. In August, Bush strategist Karl Rove promised a second push from the
White House. But Rove has faced stiff resistance from Virginia Congressman Tom
Davis, who chairs the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

Although the NRCC won the special elections in Virginia and Arkansas this
year, Democrats nearly pulled off upsets in both contests by pounding their
opponents on Social Security; in the Arkansas race, Democrat Mike Hathorn used
the issue to whittle a 32-point deficit down to a mere four points. Now, Davis is
worried about his candidates being saddled with the commission's reform plan in
2002. And even when the commission does issue its "range of options," says
Robinson, moving a plan through Congress would require "a major, concerted public
education campaign run by the White House"--a campaign Bush seems disinclined to
wage. "Everybody knows what the options are, for God's sake," says Galston.
"What's the point in producing another options paper? I think it was just a
failed enterprise."

But the commission and its supporters are, as usual, on-message. "I never
really saw our mission as presenting a piece of legislation ready-to-go," says
Olivia Mitchell. Cato has defended the commission's switch, as has the
conservative Heritage Foundation. Representative Charlie Stenholm, one of the
commission's few Democratic allies, now says that "coming through with one or two
or three plans ... would be a very appropriate action on their part." Yet in
early November he signed a letter stating that while a report detailing options
would be a "useful educational tool," he and congressional supporters "firmly
believe that the commission should offer a specific recommendation as well."

Sam Beard muses that Bush "is the first sitting United States president that
has said, 'Updating Social Security and modernizing it for the twenty-first
century is a top priority of this administration.'" He may also be the last.