On the brink of a heated election year session, House Republicans face a tough choice: either build an agenda based on their goals for the country, or one that gives them the best chance to retain control of the chamber.
Perhaps the best example of this dilemma is the debate over Social Security reform. While many Republicans support partial privatization plans to help revitalize the Social Security system, they fear that they may not be able to sell that idea to voters. As a result, their legislative plans may well end up on hold this year.
After repeating the "Stop the Raid" mantra for nearly a year now in an effort to take full credit for the Social Security lock-box initiative -- which took Social Security dollars off budget for the first time -- most Republicans say the next step is to offer private investment options for building retirement nest eggs.
But top GOP strategists predict that Congress won't make the move in 2000. The reason boils down to a basic lack of confidence in the intelligence of the average American voter. On the surface, private savings options sound like plans to throw out Social Security altogether, even though in truth they are only envisioned as ways to supplement the existing system.
Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, who believes in partial privatization, admitted that such efforts could have disastrous repercussions in an election year. "It opens you up for attack from the left," he said.
Last spring, the NRCC commissioned a poll, conducted by Linda DiVall of American Viewpoint Inc., which concluded that support for private investing of Social Security dollars into the stock market was shaky at best even though 88 percent of respondents said they favored Social Security reform.
Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, cited DiVall's poll last year as evidence that "Stop the Raid" was a simpler message to secure senior citizen support. But even though Republicans generally agree that the lock box was just the first step toward fixing Social Security's woes, GOP members and strategists say the poll rules out further reform attempts in this election year.
Pollster DiVall and some Democrats agree that privatization is a bad move for the GOP. "To move forward without acknowledgement of this will significantly endanger an already fragile GOP majority," DiVall wrote.
"It'll give us the opportunity to hit them," said Steve Elmendorf, chief of staff for Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo. "We've always known that [privatization] is what they're for."
Nevertheless, some Republicans are determined to go ahead anyway. House Ways and Means Chairman Bill Archer, R-Texas, and Rep. Clay Shaw, R-Fla., plan to promote their joint plan for private investment of Social Security dollars this session - despite warnings from GOP strategists that the political consequences of trying to sell that message may not be worth the risk.
Social Security reform "must rely on the greater earning capacity of the private sector," Archer said.
As Archer held court outside the House chamber early in January, touting the benefits of private sector investment, his Democratic counterpart, New York Rep. Charlie Rangel, jumped in to say he was willing to work together and discuss reform possibilities. "Social Security, in my opinion, is something we can do in a bipartisan way," the congressman rasped. "It's my feeling that if the president and both parties agreed, then the American people would be in accord."
Furthermore, Rangel is afraid that if the parties don't work together on Social Security they will both lose ground in election 2000. "I'm afraid that the sucking sound you're hearing from Republicans may include us too," he said.
Privatization ideas get varied reactions from different age groups, Boehner said. Young people tend to doubt that Social Security will be there for them upon retirement, and therefore are more open to reform, while older Americans resist any effort to disrupt the system's status quo.
"You can be assured that if you get into this debate, some will want to scare senior citizens as they did with Medicare a few years ago," Boehner said. The April 1999 poll predicted that Republicans would face "significant" problems building support for privatization because of the low public perceptions of Republicans following impeachment, the adamant opposition of women over 60 and the greater level of voter confidence in Democrats on Social Security.
"Until Republicans can articulate to the 67-year-old woman living by herself and relying upon Social Security and Medicare that her benefits will not be touched in any way by these new ideas ... then Republicans are leaving themselves open to being punished at the ballot box by this group of voters, who are both sizable and among the most likely to participate in elections," DiVall wrote.
Overall, the respondents opposed investing in the stock market to benefit Social Security yields by a 2-to-1 margin. A GOP strategist familiar with the poll said it will undoubtedly be held up as proof-positive that even partial privatization is a no-go in 2000. "I don't think that's something you're going to see," the strategist said. "It's too volatile an issue."
The fear "is that each side will demagogue the plan as a political tactic as opposed to talking on the merits of the issue," the GOP strategist said, adding that by contrast "Stop the Raid" is a straightforward concept and an easy message to craft.
Republican conference chairman J.C. Watts, R-Okla., said the concern about whether the private investment option for Social Security benefits is a "deliverable" message is "legitimate."
"Because of a lot of the rhetoric that spews out on a lot of these issues ... that makes members a little fidgety," Watts said. "I think members are looking to the administration to come up with something."
At the same time though, Watts said it's important for Republicans to show sympathy for young working people's concerns that Social Security dollars will not be around for their retirement.
"Look at the billionaires around the country. Michael Dell (of Dell Computers), I mean this guy is 34 years old," Watts said, adding that private investment ideas put Republicans on common ground with these young, influential people.
But the DiVall poll showed that even in the age 18-29 GOP voter category, only 55 percent were in favor of investing Social Security money in the stock market. "There is a reason why Bill Clinton hasn't made a proposal to reform Social Security. There is a reason that Republicans haven't made a proposal and that is that they are both too chicken to do so," the GOP strategist said.
DiVall concluded that "two strong negatives make Social Security reform, without adverse political consequences to the GOP majority status, unlikely unless the president leads on this issue, Congress develops a bipartisan plan and the GOP engages in an aggressive communications/education/branding campaign ..."
First, she said 50 percent opposed the idea of investing -- with "Gen-Xers" as the only age group supporting the idea. "Republicans in general are least supportive of this idea, which makes it difficult to generate significant partisan momentum," DiVall said.
Furthermore, DiVall said Archer's likely message of providing Americans with a tax cut that they could invest in the stock market to guarantee their benefits only has lukewarm support over the likely Democrat counter-argument that it's a "radical" scheme which "will serve to make Wall Street companies richer."
"In short, the GOP idea does not even begin with majority support and in the short run support will most probably erode before climbing -- even with the Dow Jones now [soaring]," DiVall wrote.
So in the end, will the GOP launch some sort of private investment option this year?
"No," the GOP strategist said. "I think it would be suicide."