Social Security Changes Swamped By Hurricanes

NOVEMBER 2005 - Impact Felt On Legislative Front - Autumn was supposed to mark the beginning of the end for the dreadful Government Pension Offset (GPO) and Windfall Elimination Provision (WEP). But that was before the two-thirds of the US Gulf Coast was devastated by two late-summer hurricanes.

When the Congress recessed in late July, Republican and Democratic leaders announced plans indicating that Social Security reform would be on the fall agenda. Washington insiders pointed to late October or early November as the likely time frame for action within the House.

In our September issue of the Voice, we reported that the best opportunity to either repeal or amend the GPO/WEP laws would be during a larger effort to reform the overall Social Security program. With large federal programs, like Social Security, Congress tends to opt for comprehensive changes that effect the nation as a whole.

Congressional Agenda Impacted

When Congress returned this fall, the anticipated strong push for Social Security reform began. But then along came the hurricanes, and not surprisingly, the situation changed dramatically.

The mammoth hurricanes not only impacted the Gulf region and its citizens, who tragically may have lost their homes (see story page 2). With the unexpected financial toll of these storms, added to the high cost of the Iraq War, Congressional focus has been forced to shift towards the crisis at hand.

Instead of taking up the planned Social Security reform package and a host of other domestic issues, our elected officials in Washington must now address rebuilding from the hurricanes and bringing closure to the war. These issues are paramount in the court of public opinion, to which all politicians pay particular attention.

"We have been fighting to bring the GPO and WEP to the center of our public policy debate for many years. Over the past year there seemed to be a real interest, both among the public and in Congress, to finally make some changes to Social Security," explained Association President Ralph White. "Apparently mother nature had her own plans.

"A situation like this is completely out of everyone's control. Those communities must be rebuilt, the energy facilities brought back online, and commerce allowed to move again. Unfortunately, other important issues are forced to take a backseat. Of course we don't like this delay, but given the circumstances it is understandable."

Changes Still Needed

As life improves in the devastated areas and Congress gets back on track, the need to make changes, in the overall Social Security System, will again take center stage. Even though the attention of Representative James McCrery (D-LA), who chairs the Subcommittee on Social Security, has been co-opted by the crisis within his home state, the Subcommittee staff has remained hard at work on the issue.

Prior to the storms, Republican Congressional Leaders were thought to be readying a two-pronged approach to "reforming" Social Security. The first step was to enact legislation that would direct the annual Social Security surplus into "private accounts" for active workers. This move, while similar to the President Bush's privatization proposal, stops short of reducing benefits or diverting funds needed to pay for current benefits.

Step two of the Republican plan was to move with legislation that would have "reformed" the Social Security System as a whole. Details of such a plan have yet to be released; however, Congressional sources indicate proposals to increase the retirement age for younger workers and to raise the current cap on contributions are among the items being discussed.

Congressional supporters of our efforts, to repeal the GPO/WEP laws, had planned to amend any reform measure to include the repeal language. With 286 cosponsors within the House for H.R. 147 (repeal bill), the votes needed for the passage of an amendment appear intact.

Heading into the Congressional mid-term election year, it is unclear as to what issues may be brought forth for a vote. Traditionally, the party in power avoids taking up controversial or complex issues, like Social Security, in the midst of an election year. However, signs indicate that next year could be different.

"There is a chance that the leadership will try to move a modest Social Security reform bill early in 2006," says Association Legislative Liaison Shawn Duhamel. "The important thing is for everyone to keep the pressure on and not allow GPO/WEP to be left behind. We will never lose sight of their importance to our members."