There's an extremely interesting, really a must-read article in Thursday's Post about the evolving Social Security debate.
The essential development is that, at least in the House Republican caucus, Ways and Means Chair Bill Thomas's (R) comments weren't just some off-the-cuff mutterings to be discarded in the next day's papers. They are now affirmed and expanded upon by Rep. Jim McCrery (R) of Louisiana, the newly seated Chairman of the Ways and Means Social Security Subcommittee.
Just what Thomas and McCrery mean though gets even murkier and one could draw very different conclusions about what they are proposing depending on which part of the article you read. The rest of this post may be tough sledding; and I apologize for that. But it's from doing the best I can to disentangle what I suspect are intentionally confusing reports from off the Hill.
The piece begins with what the Post describes as a growing realization among many Hill Republicans that getting money for private accounts out of payroll taxes now destined for Social Security just may not be workable because of the level of opposition that approach has already churned up. McCrery's tack is to get radical tax reform (i.e., a national sales tax or other ideas) back into the mix to open up different possibilities for funding private accounts.
But in the Post's telling it's maddeningly difficult to figure out whether the Ways and Means Republicans are talking about leaving Social Security and its payroll tax base alone and finding other ways to fund private accounts or wbether they are trying to put the entire federal tax code on the table, thus turning the entire debate, and whatever clarity it had, on its head.
Hypothetically, if the whole payroll tax system were scrapped or fundamentally changed, there'd be no clarity on what sort of plan was diverting money from Social Security taxes or not, since the whole funding base of the system would have been done away with and replaced with something else.
Clearly there are Republicans on the Hill who want to put some give back into this rapidly-tightening legislative knot and get their version of tax reform on the table while they're at it.
But wait, there's more.
In the second half of the article, the author chats up Democratic Social Security mavens Sperling, Orszag and Emanuel, who say this new tack from Republicans is a good thing. They then go on to lay out the Democrats position. For them, it's private accounts so long as they're on top of Social Security rather than carved out from Social Security revenues -- the position we've discussed here at TPM many times.
In the Post's description, "Social Security would remain essentially unchanged as a stable, defined retirement benefit, but benefits could be slightly reduced and taxes slightly raised through a variety of mechanisms to keep it solvent as baby boomers retire." And then they say McCrery calls this assessment "right on."
So wait, have McCrery and Thomas just ushered the entire Republican majority into the Conscience Caucus? They're agreeing to leave Social Security intact as a defined benefit, near-universal government program and they'll set up private accounts with new funds from somewhere else?
Somehow I doubt that's what they're agreeing to.
Luckily, there's no reason to think the White House or DeLay's folks would be negotiating in bad faith or anything.