Commentary

Congress Should Make Tough Choices

The 109th Congress began its work this week. The first session after a presidential election is always a hopeful time, full of promise. Americans have selected their leaders, and elected officials can take a few months to govern before beginning their reelection campaigns. For one brief shining moment members of Congress may even concentrate on the national interest and future generations rather than the next election.

This Congress has several challenges to meet, including the threat of terrorism, the war in Iraq, and the future of our underfunded Social Security system. President Bush campaigned on Social Security reform, as did several new senators. The time is right to deal with the issue. In less than 15 years, Social Security will begin to run a deficit, spending more on benefits than it takes in in taxes. Some members of Congress would have us believe that the “trust fund” will pay benefits then. But it makes no difference whether the trust fund is there or not. As President Bill Clinton’s budget team wrote in 1999,

These [Trust Fund] balances are available to finance future benefit payments and other trust fund expenditures — but only in a bookkeeping sense… They do not consist of real economic assets that can be drawn down in the future to fund benefits. Instead, they are claims on the Treasury that, when redeemed, will have to be financed by raising taxes, borrowing from the public, or reducing benefits or other expenditures.

That is, trust fund or no, in 2018 the Social Security system will need money from the Treasury to pay current benefits. This is not a crisis in the distant future, as some would insist. Rep. Rob Simmons (R-Ct.) said recently, “When does the program go belly up? 2042. I will be dead by then.” Alas, the bill comes due in 2018, when Simmons may well be alive and hoping to collect Social Security at the age of 74. Responsible members of Congress should deal with the problem now, before it gets worse, and before the next election makes any reasonable debate impossible.

Members should also realize that there’s a more important reason than insolvency to create private accounts for Social Security. Americans would like to control their own money. They should be able to put their retirement savings in their own nest egg. Ownership is the American Dream. Members of Congress of both parties should work with President Bush to give young Americans the chance to own and control their retirement savings.

In some other areas, members would be well advised to stand up to the president. Whatever one thinks of the wisdom of the war in Iraq, our task now should be to extricate ourselves from that country with all deliberate speed. Saddam is gone, an elected government will soon be in place, and the costs of the war continue to mount—more than $4 billion a month, along with more than 1300 American lives so far. If the Bush administration doesn’t move toward withdrawal after the election, members of Congress should remember their constitutional authority over matters of war and peace and the expenditure of tax dollars.

Congress should also assert its authority over questions of protecting Americans from terrorism while also protecting civil liberties. During December’s debate on the intelligence reform bill, Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) said, “We will see today or this week who is running the country, powerful [congressional committee] chairmen or the president of the United States.”

That’s the wrong framework, for two reasons. First, neither Congress nor the president “runs the country”; they run the federal government, which is challenge enough for anyone. Second, the president is not a dictator. Members of Congress are elected to govern; the Constitution assigns to them “all legislative powers herein granted.” Committee chairs are elected by their constituents and then by their congressional colleagues; they are under no obligation to yield to the president’s judgment.

Congress should take the lead in the struggle to protect Americans: Focus our efforts on dismantling al Qaeda, including aggressive pursuit of Osama bin Laden and his associates. They should make domestic counterterrorism the top priority for the FBI (no more assigning 10 agents to spend months wiretapping a brothel in New Orleans).

Members of Congress should also carefully review the PATRIOT Act—at least read it this time—with an eye to letting all the “sunset” provisions expire as scheduled in December 2005. I suggest that they repeal the Act’s “sneak and peek” provision authorizing secret searches, and make better screening of visitors at points of entry to the United States the top priority for the Department of Homeland Security.

Finally, Congress should do what every family does: If it needs to spend more money on something, it should spend less on something else. New priorities like homeland security should be paid for by scaling back lower-priority programs rather than by taking out a third mortgage on the house.

David Boaz is executive vice president of the Cato Institute and author of Libertarianism: A Primer(Free Press, 1998).