Tim Johnson on Social Security ... Or Not
During the 2004 campaign, Johnson stated that he would support at least partial privatization of Social Security. In particular, he responded to inquiry by Vote Smart that he would support "[a]llow[ing] workers to invest a portion of their payroll tax in private accounts which they manage themselves" and "[i]nvest[ing] a portion of Social Security assets collectively in stocks and bonds instead of United States Treasury securities." He declined to support any of the other five proposals suggested by Vote Smart.
Those positions, at least, were fairly clear. Since the election, however, the President has made clear that he is intent on effecting major changes in Social Security, a position that voters have viewed, to say the least, skeptically. (See this Polling Report collection that shows 62%-25% disapproval of Bush's handling of Social Security and 66% uneasy with Bush's approach to Social Security vs. 27% confident in Bush). And, since the election, Mr. Johnson has been avoiding the issue like the plague.
I searched Mr. Johnson's web site -- and there is not a single mention of his position on Social Security. I emailed his office in February or March and called his office in April, but could not get a response as to what his position was on the issue. The News-Gazette reported on June 3 that "Johnson hasn't taken a position on the issue yet".
In early June, I did receive a letter from Mr. Johnson, apparently in response to my February or March email. The letter is a study in avoiding taking a position in as many words as possible. While he states that "[s]ecuring and improving Social Security, both for current retirees and for future generations, is one of my top priorities" -- and who could argue with that? -- he goes to say, essentially, that he has no position on how to advance "one of his top priorities":
As you may know, this program faces a threat in the coming years due to the impending retirement of the "Baby Boom" generation. Born between 1946 and 1864, this generation is now moving into its highest earning years. Social Security accounts look healthy today due to the high tax receipts received from Baby Boomers. However, as this generation begins to retire, severe strains on the program are anticipated. While benefits for today's seniors are secure, Social Security cannot afford to pay benefits promised to younger Americans. I believe in order for younger workers to receive the amount of retirement benefits promised from Social Security, something will have to be done, for doing nothing is not an option.A lot of words, but they essentially boil down to: (1) He is opposed to doing nothing -- even though no one is advocating "doing nothing" (though plenty of people are opposing the specific idea of privitization that the President has put on the table); and (2) benefits for current retirees should be maintained -- even though no one, including the President, is proposing otherwise. Notably absent is any position on the specific issue of private accounts that Bush is advocating and that Johnson apparently used to favor.
Currently, Congress is intensely debating this important issue and I assure you that I will look at all options with an open mind. I stress again that Social Security is one of my highest priorities as your Representative, and I do not support proposals that would reduce Social Security benefits for our current retirees. It is important to assure our seniors that they will be able to retire in comfort and receive the Social Security benefits that they have paid for throughout their careers. As the President declared in the State of the Union Adress, "We must guarantee no change for those 55 years or older." A serious discussion of potential options is necessary to determine how to best ensure a healthy system for generations to come, and it is prudent that we act soon. As proposals are made, I assure you that I will keep your concerns in mind.
Now, look, I'm not opposed to sober deliberation, if that's what's really going on here. And there's really nothing anybody could disagree with in Johnson's letter. But that's the point. Johnson's strategy appears to be to avoid taking any position on the issue that his party's President has made the most important issue of the day, and on which he is on record as agreeing with the President's central proposal, because he knows Bush's position is unpopular with his constituents. Some politicians would stand on their beliefs, regardless of what their constitituents think. Some would believe that their duty is to represent the voters, regardless of personal belief. Some would run and hide.
This story is not over. Maybe Johnson will show some backbone and stand up for his constituents on this one. Or maybe he will submit to party discipline. (I suspect he's hoping that he can keep his head down until the leadership works something out.) We have already learned something about how Mr. Johnson handles an important and controversial issue, but before this is over, we I suspect we will learn a lot more.
UPDATE: The House GOP leadership today made its own Social Security proposal. TJW will report back on the contents of the proposal and whether Johnson will now be willing to take a position on Social Security.