A key House committee chairman says Republicans are willing to set aside most of the expected $4 trillion budget surplus over the next 15 years until lawmakers can agree on a solution to Social Security's financial problems, as President Clinton has asked.
"We would be willing to reserve 62 percent of the surplus until Social Security has been saved," Rep. Bill Archer of Texas, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said today.
But he said he still intends to push for using the rest of the surplus for tax cuts.
Archer and many Republicans question the Social Security rescue plan outlined Tuesday in the president's State of the Union speech. They especially dislike Clinton's proposal for the government to invest some of the surplus set aside for Social Security in the stock market.
But Rep. Charles Rangel of New York, the senior Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, said an agreement on allotting the surplus "is one heck of a great beginning."
In turn, Rangel said he is willing to discuss the tax cuts Republicans want. He said the idea of government stock market investments does not have to be a sticking point on Social Security.
"We can put that on the side. That's a serious dispute. I do not think it's going to be resolved," Rangel said.
The Ways and Means Committee has jurisdiction over both taxes and Social Security.
The panel today was to hear from the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., chairman of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, and Jack F. Kemp, the former Western New York congressman and 1996 Republican vice presidential nominee, about their views on Social Security.
While polls showed most Americans backing Clinton's Social Security rescue plan, Nielsen Media Research said an estimated 43.5 million television viewers watched Clinton deliver his State of the Union address, down from 51.3 million last year.
Clinton has suggested using 62 percent of government surpluses over the next 15 years to bolster Social Security's cash reserves.
Administration officials say that the president will push for the government to invest about a quarter of that money in the stock market, despite swift criticism from not only congressional Republicans, but also from Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, who feared that the government's investment decisions would be political and could hurt the nation's economic efficiency.
Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, appearing today on two morning television shows, said Clinton's proposal would help shore up the return on Social Security retirement funds without creating undue risks for the program as a whole. He said Greenspan's warning that the plan would risk political meddling in the stock market was unfounded.
"I think that the chairman raised some legitimate concerns, but I also think that there are very good responses to those concerns," Rubin said on NBC's Today Show.
Rubin said the funds to be invested would be managed by private-sector professionals under the oversight of an independent government body, much like the Fed, to cut out the risk of political interference in investment decisions.
"The Federal Reserve Board is independent, and it has maintained its independence over many decades, much to the benefit of this country. I think what we need to do is provide a similar independence for this function," he said.
Since only a small portion of the overall Social Security trust fund would be invested in stocks, the system could weather possible stock market declines, Rubin said.
"The chairman is right -- stocks do have risks," he said on the ABC-TV program "Good Morning America."
"It would seem to us what you will get is the benefit of what has been a higher return of equities over bonds over the long run. At the same time, the investment is not such a large part of the trust as to create an imprudent risk."
Gene Sperling, a White House economics adviser, also attempted to play down Greenspan's criticism, noting that Greenspan actually had agreed with the general idea of Clinton's proposal -- ensuring the overall solvency of Social Security.
"Overall, chairman Greenspan was supportive," Sperling said on the CBS program "This Morning." "Where we disagree is that we think it's possible to have a very small amount of the surplus invested in the market to get higher returns for Social Security recipients like any other pension recipient gets. We can do that in a way that is non-political and safe."
Clinton will urge members of Congress to help devise a way the Social Security investments could be made with minimal political influence -- perhaps by an independent board appointed for long terms. Some congressional Democrats already are working on it.
But opponents say political problems are unavoidable. Would the government invest in companies it is suing, for example?
"The possibilities for abuse in that arrangement are unlimited," said House Majority Leader Dick Armey, R-Texas.
Archer said Congress can save Social Security "without making the government an owner of private markets. . . . This proposal will lead to mischief, political favoritism and less money for Social Security recipients. It's a very bad idea."
Many pension funds for state employees already have confronted the issue of whether investments can be insulated from politics, with mixed results.
In the 1980s, when South Africa was ruled by the then all-white Nationalist Party, the California Legislature passed a measure that forced the California Public Employees System to sell off shares in companies that did business with the apartheid nation.
The system, which manages the pension plan for a million California state and local government employees, estimates the divestment plan cost the fund about $500 million, said Pat Macht, a spokeswoman.
The Clinton administration also might face awkward investment decisions, analysts say.
It could find itself holding stock in Microsoft while fighting Microsoft in court in a way that could hurt its interests as a shareholder. Or it could hold shares in RJR Nabisco while pursuing multibillion-dollar lawsuits against the conglomerate's tobacco company.
Some analysts fretted that government investment could skew already steep stock market valuations. If the government decided to put all the money into an index fund linked to the Standard & Poor's 500, the market values of those companies would rise, compared with others, widening a gap already at an historic high.