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Bush: Start now on Social Security
But critics say proposed reforms are unnecessary and may actually hurt the system.
December 16, 2004: 4:50 PM EST

WASHINGTON (CNN) - Now is the time to address the nation's Social Security problem, President Bush said Thursday, instead of leaving it for future administrations and generations to deal with.

"It is a far easier problem to manage today than it will be if we continue postponing solutions," Bush said as he wrapped up a two-day White House economic conference.

At the conference, he also called for an overhaul of the tax code, pledged to cut the federal budget deficit in half and sought support for making his major tax cuts permanent.

He promised to send Congress a tough new budget next year, saying: "If the deficit is an issue, which it is, therefore it's going to require some tough choices on the spending side."

The Social Security system, he said, has some $10.4 trillion in unfunded liability, meaning a 20-year-old worker today is being promised retirement benefits that are 30 percent higher than what the system can actually pay.

Starting in 2018, Social Security benefit payments begin to outpace payroll tax receipts, according to this year's Social Security trustees report. The system's trust fund will not run out of money until 2042, according to the trustees, or 2052, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office.

"Now is the time to work together to confront the problem," Bush said. "The crisis is now."

While he didn't present specific proposals, the president wants to let younger workers put some of their Social Security payroll taxes in private investment accounts. He has rejected raising payroll taxes to finance the costs of changing over to allowing private accounts, estimated at $1 trillion to $2 trillion.

He also said again that senior citizens will receive the checks they have been promised.

Social Security
George W. Bush
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But experts say Bush faces an uphill battle on reforming the Depression-Era retirement program long known as the "third rail" of American politics.

Democrats and other critics say Bush's approach would undermine a stable system and give Wall Street a huge government-subsidized windfall.

In fact, some experts say there is no major problem facing Social Security and that some of the proposed reforms are actually dangerous. They call for small changes to adjust the system. (For more on the debate, click here).

"We cannot support any plan that relies on massive and irresponsible increases in debt," Democratic congressional leaders said in a statement, according to Reuters, referring to fears the White House would advocate heavy borrowing to finance reform.

William Beach, an analyst at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said most lawmakers in Congress currently oppose reform or remain unconvinced that it is necessary, despite Republican gains in the Nov. 2 election.

"I really think this is going to be one of those great moments in political history where we're not going to know whether it passes until the last moment," Beach told Reuters.

The president, who has been criticized for policies that have raised the federal deficit, said he would pursue deficit reduction by controlling spending unrelated to defense and homeland security.

He said tax code reform should go hand in hand with tax relief.

The conference also focused on tort reform and health care costs. Bush said he welcomed the chance to work with members of Congress from both parties to address those issues.  Top of page

-- Reuters contributed to this report

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