Activists: Take stand on Social Security

So say opposition groups like the AARP to key U.S. House members, who can recess but can't hide from the groups' public pressure tactics.

Published August 8, 2005

WASHINGTON - In Colorado they passed out plates of warm waffles to ridicule lawmakers for "waffling." In Illinois they dressed a man in a duck costume to mock lawmakers "ducking" the issue. In Connecticut they pasted photos on milk cartons to taunt lawmakers "missing" from the debate.

In Florida they're delivering cakes to lawmakers commemorating Social Security's 70th birthday, encouraging them to "cut the cake, not the benefits."

As members of Congress settled in for their five-week recess, they are being pressured to take a stand on President Bush's plan to revamp Social Security.

Opposition groups are pushing about 70 key U.S. House members, including four from Florida, to come out against the president's plan to divert some Social Security money into personal investment accounts.

"It is time for every member of Congress to take a stand on the president's plan," said Brad Woodhouse, spokesman for Americans United to Protect Social Security, a group made up of former Democratic staffers. "Double talk, evasion and obfuscation will no longer be tolerated. The president's plan is on the table and members of Congress should have the guts to say "yes' or "no."'

With a divided Congress postponing votes until the fall and attention diverted to the president's nominee for the Supreme Court, many experts watching the debate predict Social Security reform won't go anywhere this year. But opposition groups are continuing to fight, worried that Republican leaders are playing down expectations to lull opponents into a false sense of security.

Some Florida Republican members have held off taking a position, struggling to balance the desires of their older constituents with allegiance to party.

Among those opponents are targeting is Rep. Katherine Harris of Sarasota, who recently announced she's running for the U.S. Senate. She said she opposes using the Social Security trust fund to pay for investment accounts but is withholding judgment until she sees a complete proposal.

"I don't like being on the fence," she said. "I'm taking time to study the issue. I hope people will understand where I am coming from.

"When you have a package to say yes or no, that's where the rubber meets the road."

Also on the target list for Florida: Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite, whose district north of Tampa Bay includes the fourth-highest number of seniors in the nation; Rep. Mark Foley of West Palm Beach; and Rep. Clay Shaw of Fort Lauderdale. Foley and Shaw are on the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over Social Security legislation.

"They're trying to buy time by throwing out the malarkey that they're studying the issue," said Tony Fransetta, president of the Florida Alliance for Retired Americans. "We're going to hold them accountable."

Maryland Rep. Steny Hoyer, the second-highest ranking Democrat in the House, listed the "Frightened 55" Republicans in a release titled "Come out, come out wherever you are." The list includes Harris and Brown-Waite, to whom a Social Security birthday cake will be delivered at 11 a.m. today at her Brooksville office.

Brown-Waite said she's waiting until she sees a bill moving through the House that she would have to vote on. "When there is a bill that comes out of Ways and Means, I will comment, but until then nothing is real," she said.

In the past few weeks, Senate and House members - including Shaw - have introduced bills to create personal accounts as part of or in addition to Social Security. Other proposals are focused more on long-term solvency of Social Security, such as saving money by lowering benefits for higher-income workers.

Many experts expect the House will take up a bill first, so opposition groups are focusing on eight Republicans on the House Ways and Means committee.

"It really doesn't matter," said Foley, a committee member who supports the concept of personal accounts as long as traditional Social Security remains solvent. "Rather than have an intellectual discussion they are simply antagonizing, virtually attacking the member."

Opposition groups include the AARP, the Florida Consumer Action Network and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

They are e-mailing alerts to their members. They are holding town hall meetings, complete with empty seats for invited lawmakers who don't show. They are calling residents, encouraging them to call their representative. They are protesting outside lawmakers' offices - and sometimes homes - with the trademark yellow signs "Hands off my Social Security."

They are canvassing neighborhoods, hundreds a night, spouting facts on benefits cuts and the rising national debt. They are collecting petitions outside Publix and Wal-Mart. They are showing up at lawmakers' public events - regardless of whether it is about Social Security.

An inflatable 800-pound gorilla has shown up at events to show lawmakers they are surrounded by the issue. A flatbed truck dubbed the "Truth Truck" has made its way across the United States, hauling signatures of more than 1-million Americans. Toolboxes were sent to lawmakers to symbolize that Social Security only needs minor changes, not a wrecking ball.

"This fight is going to go on for months still," said Tom Matzzie, the Washington director ofMoveOn.org. "At this point if you haven't decided which side you're on, you're not being straight up with constituents."

Harris, given more than 1,400 petitions and anti-accounts postcards, knows she is a target because she is running for statewide office. She said she isn't worried about the opposition groups.

"I don't lose any sleep over that," she said. "What influences me are my constituents. They know I'm open to listen. Running for Senate won't change anything one bit."

President Bush made his proposal to divert some payroll taxes to investment accounts the top domestic priority of his second term, and spent six months of the year campaigning on the need to revamp Social Security. But polls show he has less support for individual accounts now than he had when he started.

An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released in mid July found that public support for diverting payroll taxes to accounts has dropped 7 percentage points since January, to 33 percent; 57 percent were opposed.

Bush had been holding weekly town hall meetings on Social Security but stopped in mid June. His last appearance was in Atlanta two weeks ago.

"I think the president is used to winning. The president is very tenacious. I don't think he will drop this anytime soon," said Phil Compton, state director of Floridians United to Protect Social Security.

"I don't think this will go away anytime soon, and so neither will we."

--Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.