As printed in USA Today, December 7, 1998
by Gene Sperling
In his 1998 State of the Union address, President Clinton challenged our nation to do something historic: to confront our major retirement challenges not by waiting until the moment of crisis, but by acting early while we still have the opportunity to prevent a crisis from taking place.
To succeed in historic Social Security reform, the president called on Congress to reserve the budget surplus until Social Security is fixed, and to overcome the partisanship and politics that have often spelled doom for Social Security efforts.
To derail this "third rail" mentality, the president called for bipartisan regional forums across the country and pledged that during this year of national dialogue he would stay open-minded and that no one in his administration would criticize or politicize any Social Security reform proposal.
The president intends to build on the progress made in 1998 - including saving the $1.5 trillion in projected surpluses over the next 10 years - by taking whatever steps will be most effective in achieving bipartisan Social Security reform.
But let's be candid: understanding which steps will be unifying - instead of polarizing - is a critical one that can be best answered when Congress is fully engaged and has had a chance to consult with us and with each other.
That is why, rather than Republicans and Democrats simply playing the partisan game of asking the other to "go first," we should be engaging with each other on the best way to work together to achieve the bipartisan trust needed to reach bipartisan Social Security reform.
The White House conference that started Tuesday is a positive step in that direction. By pulling together Democratic and Republican leaders, experts and advocacy groups -- a month before the new legislative session has even begun -- to confront such key issues as achieving true solvency for the Social Security system, the technical challenges of reform, the means to reduce poverty among elderly women, and whether and how the system should be prefunded, we can build on our year-long dialogue and further lay the foundation for the type of serious, civil, and bipartisan discussion that we must have to save Social Security for the 21st century.
Sperling serves as Assistant to the President for Economic Policy and as director of the Presidents National Economic Council.