Clinton and Lott Wrangle Over Social Security

By: John M. Broder
October 27, 1998

President Clinton and the Senate majority leader, Trent Lott, traded accusations of demagoguery and bad faith today in a partisan pre-election skirmish over Social Security. Mr. Clinton, at a White House forum on elderly women and Social Security, said Republicans in Congress wanted to use the Federal budget surplus to finance tax cuts, rather than to insure the solvency of the Social Security system. The President said that he blocked that effort by threatening to veto the Republicans' tax bill and that he would continue to oppose any effort to spend the surplus on anything other than Social Security.

The President said Mr. Lott, a Mississippi Republican, had continued to insist that budget surpluses be returned to taxpayers in the form of tax cuts. He recalled that Mr. Lott had recently said that Mr. Clinton could not be trusted to address the problems of Social Security and that Republicans would wait until a new President was elected before beginning serious work on the Government retirement program.

Mr. Lott said recently - and repeated today - that scandal had eroded the President's credibility and left many wondering whether he could be trusted to deal with important policy matters like Social Security. "Well, I hope that's just election season rhetoric," the President said in an East Room discussion of retirement security for elderly women. He then sarcastically noted that Republicans were willing to work with business lobbyists to kill an Administration health care proposal, tobacco legislation and a campaign finance overhaul measure.

"I think the Senate majority leader will be able to find time to work with me to save Social Security, and I certainly hope so," the President said with a sardonic smile. Barely an hour after the President finished speaking, Mr. Lott issued a statement angrily accusing Mr. Clinton of using Social Security to frighten and pander to elderly voters.

"No politician should prey on the fears of senior Americans and shamelessly demagogue Social Security one week before an election," Mr. Lott said. "I am committed to genuine Social Security reform, and after the election I will work with anyone, who shares that commitment." . Mr. Lott then repeated a remark from 10 days ago that infuriated the White House and led to today's re- joinder from Mr. Clinton. "The President's credibility crisis leaves many wondering whether he can be trusted with such an important policy issue," Mr. Lott said in his statement.

White House officials were delighted with Mr. Lott's response, because polls show that the President's position on Social Security is much more popular than the Republican leader's. Paul Begala, a senior political adviser to the President, said Mr. Clinton had not raised Social Security as a partisan issue but had sought bipartisan agreement on saving the budget surplus to strengthen the Social Security trust fund.

Today's dust-up "is regrettable," Mr. Begala said with a barely-suppressed smile. "If the majority leader is interested in a debate on who is more credible, who is to be trusted to save Social Security, we will not shrink from that debate." At the White House event, Mr. Clinton announced support for two relatively minor measures similar to proposals that Congress has twice failed to act upon.

President Clinton noted that single elderly women have among the highest rates of poverty of any group of Americans and said that for many of them Social Security "is literally all that stands between them and the ravages of poverty." He said that preserving Social Security and expanding other retirement income programs were critical to helping close the income gap between men and women.

Mr. Clinton revived two proposals that would expand retirement benefits for relatively small numbers of women. The first would allow workers who take time off from work to care for a baby or a sick family member to credit that time toward vesting in a company pension plan. Workers who take advantage of the Family and Medical Leave Act are overwhelmingly women, and many return to work only part time, making it more difficult to vest in pension plans, the White House noted in a fact sheet.

The second proposal would require companies to alter the payout provisions of pension plans for a surviving spouse. Many companies now allow couples to save up to 50 percent of their retirement benefits until after one spouse dies. Today's proposal would require companies to offer the choice of setting aside as much as 75 percent of the retirement benefit for the surviving spouse.

Neither proposal would cost private employers much money, said Dallas Salisbury, an analyst at the Employee Benefit Research Institute. The family leave provision would affect relatively few workers who f all just a few weeks short of the five years generally required to vest in a pension plan, he said.

And many companies already offer the 75 percent pension payout option, which does not affect employer contributions but only the rate at which they are paid out, Mr. Salisbury said. He also noted that similar proposals had been proposed in legislation in the past two Congresses but not acted upon. "They were popular, but there are other things that were more popular," Mr. Salisbury said. "These are small proposals that affect a quite small number of people."


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