by Margaret Talev
February 26, 2005
Capito was one of dozens of members of Congress spending this week's recess talking to voters in her district about how to retool the worker-funded program for retirees and the disabled. It's a major concern in West Virginia, where a higher than average proportion of adults receives Social Security benefits - more than one in four - and where an estimated two-thirds of elderly women rely on the program to stay out of poverty.
A town hall meeting on the subject at a senior center in this eastern mountain community drew about 100 residents, some retirees, some younger workers and some ex-miners disabled by black lung disease. Some were open to the president's proposal to let workers divert a portion of their contributions, perhaps 4 percent, to stocks and mutual fund investments in exchange for smaller guaranteed benefits when they retire. But of those who rose to speak, more were skeptical or outright opposed.
Capito, West Virginia's only Republican in Congress although the state went to Bush in the last election, wasn't out to change their minds, either. "If anybody tells you, or calls you and tells you, that I'm in favor of a certain plan and I want to privatize Social Security and take your Social Security, that person is not telling you the truth," she said. "I'm looking at everything."
She chose not to show a DVD, made available to all congressional Republicans, featuring the president speaking about the need for reform. And she made clear she did not share Bush's sense of urgency. "There's the big debate: Is it a crisis or a problem?" she told constituents. "I see it more as a problem - a problem in our future."
While there are political considerations for Capito and other Republicans who have reservations about creating so-called personal or private accounts, it's a different story for Democrats in Congress, many of whom are seizing on the public's early opposition to the president's proposal, using the town hall format to stir up distrust of the administration.
"This is an artificially created crisis," Democratic Rep. Albert Wynn told a predominately African American audience at a town hall meeting in Oxon Hill, Md., a Washington suburb, last week. "The people who stand to gain the most by this are people on Wall Street because they're going to collect fees. When you invest in stocks, in equities, you've got to pay fees. They're going to make money. If the American people understand this, they can reject this idea of privatizing."
Capito and Wynn serve two very different areas. Elkins is rural, white and older; Oxon Hill is more urban, heavily black.. The organized campaigns that turned out at the town hall meetings underscored those differences. A contingent of young Republicans who support the president showed up in Elkins, waving placards and handing out press releases. In Oxon Hill, a representative from AARP, the senior citizens' advocacy group mounting one of the biggest campaigns against privatization, spoke in opposition to Bush's plan.
In Oxon Hill, Mike Heath, a 44-year-old paralegal, predicted any privatization ultimately would necessitate a taxpayer bailout, and predicted a situation similar to the collapse of savings and loans in the 1980s.
"I just want to ask you not to give an inch on these private accounts, because it's a trick," he told Wynn. "My concern is when you guys get in there and start negotiating with the president, you're going to compromise and say OK, instead of 4 percent it will be 1 percent or 2 percent. Please don't do that."
In Elkins, 71-year-old Richard Thomas said critics are overreacting instead of taking a rational look at long-term returns on stocks vs. U.S. Treasury bonds. "Personal accounts and privatizing are two different things. Does anybody here have a pension? Would you want your pension fund invested in strictly government bonds instead of into selected stocks? I would not."
But most of the people at both town hall meetings were still simply trying to get their arms around the problem, regardless of age, race or political affiliation.
"What are these private accounts? What am I supposed to be doing now that I wasn't already? Is there some penalty I'm going to face?" Tammy Turner, a 35-year-old legal secretary, asked Wynn.
While Wynn and Capito both assured constituents older than 55 that their benefits will be safe no matter what, many said they are nervous about the future.
"People my age, we don't want to take the gamble," said John Francis, 57, a retired dentist from Maryland, a black Republican.
Finally, many simply felt no one had made a good enough case for private accounts. In West Virginia, Phyllis Baxter, 52, a historian, said she might support the idea "if it were in addition to Social Security, and not instead of." For now, though, she said, "I think we need to guarantee the benefits for generations coming up."
Capito left Elkins with a better sense of her constituents' mindsets but no firmer a commitment about whether she might support a Bush plan that includes personal accounts.
"That's his job, if he likes it, to convince me that that's something I should be in favor of," she said of the president. "I appreciate that. But I represent these 600,000 people here, and that's who I'm going to listen to in the end."