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Bush economic agenda may be in trouble
Social Security overhaul is stalled, tax fix has been delayed. Will the reforms happen -- ever?
June 17, 2005: 2:25 PM EDT
By Krysten Crawford, CNN/Money staff writer

NEW YORK (CNN/Money) - Two months isn't a long time, but President Bush's decision to delay tax reform until the fall, at the earliest, may be a sign that his second-term economic agenda is in trouble.

Bush used the political capital from his re-election to push for two major domestic reforms: overhauling Social Security, and the federal income tax code. But Social Security reform has stalled in the face of mounting opposition to a Bush proposal to allow workers to divert part of their payroll taxes into individual accounts.

Then on Thursday Bush pushed back the deadline for a bipartisan panel of tax experts to issue its recommendation for simplifying the tax code.

Meanwhile, the White House is also caught up in efforts to get Congress to ratify the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), a potentially crucial trade deal, and to pass the president's controversial 2006 budget.

As if that weren't enough, there are some holes in Bush's economic team. The Senate confirmed Fed governor Ben Bernanke this week to fill one of them: head of the White House Council of Economic Advisors. But several senior posts remain unfilled at the Treasury Department.

Further complicating the Bush agenda: polls showing growing public disapproval of the job Bush and Congress are doing, which could make lawmakers more reluctant to take risks on controversial big proposals that could alienate their constituents.

"You have to say (Bush's economic plan) is in trouble," said Greg Valliere, managing director of the Washington Research Group of Charles Schwab & Co.

Some policy analysts said Bush may have miscalculated by tackling Social Security reform first and saving the tax code for later. Given the lack of progress on Social Security, Bush had little choice but to tell a bipartisan tax reform panel to hold off on releasing its recommendations, originally due no later than July 31, until Sept. 30.

"They've put so many of their eggs in one basket that they can't switch gears without admitting failure on Social Security reform and they're not willing to do that," said Bruce Bartlett, a senior fellow at the conservative National Center for Policy Analysis.

Putting off tax reform, he said, gives the White House a "little breathing spell to rethink its (broader economic) strategy."

Taylor Griffin, a Treasury Department spokesman, acknowledged that Bush administration officials wanted to keep the public discussion focused on more pressing issues, including not just Social Security but CAFTA, a new anti-terrorism bill, the budget, and judicial vacancies.

A race against time?

Bush apparently could use some legislative wins soon.

A New York Times/CBS News poll published Friday showed the president's approval ratings on key issues like Social Security and Iraq have fallen sharply. Congress fared even worse in the opinion poll.

With the November 2006 midterm elections approaching, signs of voter disenchantment could make Social Security and tax reform harder to achieve.

Chris Edwards, the director of tax policy studies at the Cato Institute, said Bush could use some "quick kills" on pending bills to restore the political momentum he had after his re-election. Edwards suggested the pending repeal of inheritance taxes as one option.

But even that might not be so easy. Valliere said Bush doesn't have the Congressional support he needed for his agenda. "He doesn't have a working majority in the Senate," he said.

Ultimately, many unknowns will probably determine if the president's economic agenda succeeds or fails. A lot depends on the state of the economy, the ability of key Republican lawmakers to push through legislation, and whether Congress gets mired in a battle over a possible Supreme Court nomination, or other unrelated issues.

The one thing Bush can't do, given how much political capital he's invested already, is abandon the Social Security debate in favor of tax reform, some policy analysts said.

Instead, the two initiatives might be combined into one legislative package.

"The issues conceptually dovetail," said Bartlett at the policy center, noting that the overarching goal behind Social Security and tax reform is to encourage Americans to save and invest more. "I think it's always been inevitable that they would end up merging at some point."

Bartlett also noted the idea makes sense because the same Congressional committees would oversee Social Security and tax reform.

Others, however, dismiss the idea of pooling the two initiatives.

"There are so few (legislators) who are in a position right now to do both at once," said Dan Mitchell, an economist at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "I just don't see that as realistic."

This much is evident: timing is critical for Bush and his team of top advisers.

Policy experts say the president has two years at most to pull off major legislative initiatives before the public attention turns to the 2008 presidential election, which would render him essentially powerless on Capitol Hill.

Social Security reform faces an even tighter deadline. Most economists say a Social Security overhaul will be difficult, if not impossible, after the 2006 midterm elections.  Top of page

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