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Bipartisanship Must Guide Debate

The Social Security system we have today is a result of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s vision of economic security for all Americans, and it is this vision that we hope to continue by strengthening Social Security for our children and grandchildren. It is my fear that Roosevelt’s vision will become blurred if Republicans and Democrats do not come together to discuss reasonable, responsible and realistic reform of Social Security, our nation’s largest and most successful entitlement program.

Compromise is often perceived as a dirty word among political leaders, but in order to strengthen Social Security for future

generations, compromise must happen. Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) and I are proof that this can be done. Carrying the mantle of our former colleague, the widely revered Rep. Charlie Stenholm (D-Texas), we have been working with a bipartisan group of colleagues for the past six years to make Social Security stronger.

We are committed to working across party lines with the ultimate goal of ensuring the stability of this program for our children and grandchildren. Compromise is never easy, but it is possible, and the result is the only bipartisan Social Security reform bill in Congress.

The Kolbe-Boyd Bipartisan Retirement Security Act (H.R. 440) preserves promised benefits for near and current retirees, strengthens the safety net for low-income workers, and allows every American the opportunity to control his or her own retirement through the creation of personal retirement accounts.

The Bipartisan Retirement Security Act contains a minimum benefit provision that will enable low-income workers to do better than under current law, for no individual who works a full career should retire in poverty. Kolbe and I have introduced publicly administered accounts to allow younger workers to compensate for the fiscal restraint inherent in any Social Security reform.

I believe there are three elements to the Social Security equation — the tax side, the benefit side and the investment side. Social Security reform requires tough choices, but by taking any of those elements off the table, the choices will become even more difficult.

I entered into the Social Security reform debate with two main goals — to ensure the solvency of the program and maintain a strong, defined Social Security benefit. Republicans and Democrats need to do the same by first establishing clear and basic goals instead of making lists of items they refuse to consider. By taking suggestions off the table before we even approach it, we are ultimately handicapping ourselves and denying a thorough discussion of the issue.

One of the brightest shining moments we’ve witnessed in the House of Representatives in recent memory was the bipartisan budget plan developed in 1997. This plan produced a balanced budget four years in a row and resulted in budget surpluses in 1999 and 2000.

It required compromises by both Republicans and Democrats, and for the first time in decades, a Democratic president and a Republican Congress succeeded in running back-to-back surpluses without relying on funds from Social Security. I don’t think it’s far-fetched or naïve to believe that we can come together in the same way on the issue of Social Security reform.

In his State of the Union address, President Bush pledged his commitment to work with Republicans and Democrats to strengthen Social Security. As a Democrat, I have not witnessed a great deal of bipartisanship under this administration. However, it is my hope that the president fulfills this promise by taking the first step and meeting with Democratic leaders in both the House and the Senate.

Social Security reform will never be realized if Republicans and Democrats continue an unwillingness to work together, using the press as an intermediary. Our forefathers would scoff at how our debates have turned into polarized and extreme five-second media sound bites instead of frank and intelligent policy discussions.

As members who have produced a sustainable and solvent Social Security plan, Kolbe and I are proof that it can be done. Government leaders make history and leave a lasting legacy based on good policy, which equals good politics. No one better exemplifies this notion than Stenholm, who also believed in the need for bipartisanship in the debate over Social Security reform.

Stenholm is revered by both Democrats and Republicans not because of his political savvy but because of his ability to bring the parties together to enact meaningful legislation. We have the opportunity to do the same, and I call on my colleagues in Congress, elected officials, interest group leaders, and the president to put an end to the polarized atmosphere surrounding the Social Security debate and seize this incredible opportunity. If we all bring our ideas to the table, Social Security reform will be a lot easier to swallow.

Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.) is a member of the Appropriations Committee.

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