President Bill Clinton Speaks To Lawmakers' Town Meetings
April 7, 1998
CLINTON: Good afternoon. Thank you, Ken.
As Ken said, I'm speaking to you from Kansas City, where
we're talking about what we must do as a nation to strengthen
Social Security for the 21st century. And I'm looking forward
to continuing to talk with you today.
Let me begin by thanking Representatives Bob Borski, Ben
Cardin, Nancy Johnson, Jim Kolbe, and Gerry Weller for holding
these town meetings across our nation. For each of you
lawmakers, these forums are not the only way you've worked to
strengthen Social Security.
Representatives Borski and Cardin are cosponsors of key
legislation to establish the Save Social Security First Reserve
Fund. Representative Borski supports saving any budgetary
surplus for investment in Social Security, and I know
Representative Cardin does as well.
Now Representative Johnson has been a strong advocate for
Social Security beneficiaries. She's urged her fellow members
of Congress to continue to act with fiscal restraint as they
debate what to do with the budget surplus.
Representative Kolbe is one of our foremost experts on
retirement and pension policy, and is the sponsor of a
resolution to establish a joint commission on Social Security
And Representative Weller has been a powerful voice
for protecting the Social Security Trust Fund, and was an
original cosponsor of the Social Security Preservation Act.
Together, all of you are proving that we can work in a
bipartisan way to make sure that Social Security is as solid for
our children as it was for our parents. And I thank you for
As you know this year, working together with Congress, we
will be balancing the budget for the first time in 30 years. We
have a right to be proud of that achievement, but we must also
build on it.
In the State of the Union, I called on Congress to set aside
every penny of any budget surplus until we save Social Security
first. Social Security is deeply woven into our nation's social
fabric. For 60 years, it's meant more than an ID number on a
tax form, even more than a monthly check in the mail.
It reflects our deepest values and the duties we owe to one
Today, 44 million Americans depend upon Social Security. For
two-thirds of our seniors, it's the main source of income. And
one in three beneficiaries are non-retirees.
Social Security is life insurance and disability benefits as
well as a rock-solid foundation of retirement security.
Today, Social Security is sound. But a demographic crisis
looms if we fail to act. For over the next 30 years, 76 million
baby boomers will retire. By 2030, there will be twice as many
elderly Americans as there are today.
If we don't act now, by then, payroll contributions will only
cover 75 percent of benefits. That's why I've challenged our
nation to act now to strengthen Social Security for the 21st
Here are the principles I want to follow for meeting this
First, any reform should strengthen and protect Social
Security for the 21st century. We can't abandon the basic core
program that's been one of the great successes of our nation's
Second, we must maintain the universality and the
fairness of Social Security. For a half century, this program
has been a progressive guarantee for citizens. We have to keep
it that way.
Third, Social Security must provide a benefit people can
count on. Regardless of the ups and downs of the economy or the
financial markets, we must make certain that Social Security
will provide a foundation of retirement security.
Fourth, Social Security must continue to provide financial
security for disabled and low-income beneficiaries. We can
never forget the one out of three Social Security beneficiaries
who aren't retirees.
And fifth, any strengthening of Social Security must maintain
America's hard-won fiscal discipline, one of the main reasons
we're enjoying our prosperity today.
These are the five principles that will guide me on Social
Security -- principles by which I'll judge all possible
proposals. They are principles I believe can and should guide us
all as we work toward a national consensus for reform.
Above all, I know that we can strengthen Social Security only
if we reach across the lines of party philosophy and generation,
with open minds and generous spirits. For too long, politicians
have called Social Security the "third rail" of American
politics. That's Washington language for you can't really
discuss any changes seriously. This year we have to prove them
I know that on the political calendar 1998 is an election
year. But on the Social Security calendar, let's all resolve to
make 1998 an education year, a year we come to grips with the
problems with the system and come together to find the answers.
These forums are a very hopeful beginning, and I'm pleased to
have had this chance to start this vitally important dialogue
with all of you today.
This December, we'll host a White House conference on Social
Security, and in January, I'll convene the leaders of Congress
to draft a plan to save Social Security for the 21st century.
I'm confident we'll meet this challenge as Americans always
do: by working together, honoring our values and preserving the
solemn compact between generations that helped to build our
Now I'd like to turn the discussion over to Congressman
Borksi. Bob, take it away.
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE ROBERT BORSKI (D-PA): Thank you very
much, Mr. President.
CLINTON: Thank you.
BORSKI: First, let me commend you for your leadership in
setting this issue before the American public and for joining us
here in Philadelphia at this most important forum.
Social Security is, in my view, the greatest success
story that we have in the federal government of the United
States of America. It's important for the people of my
district, not just the recipients --while there are close to
100,000 recipients in the third district of Pennsylvania -- but
also to the (AUDIO GAP) of the citizens of the city of
Mr. President, one point I wanted to make, and I shared with
our audience here earlier, that as well as Social Security
works, there are still 10,000 people in our district who live
below the poverty line and who are Social Security recipients.
And all the areas that we talk about -- and we've got to make
sure that this system is around, not just for the recipients
today, but for people of our generation, and for our children
and grandchildren. But we must also -- please keep in mind that
there are a large number of people who live below the poverty
line even with the Social Security system working as well as it
So in the fixes that we have I just urge you to keep those
folks in mind as we move to make this system work better for all
And again, thank you very much for being here with us today
and for your leadership on this most important issue.
CLINTON: Thank you.
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE BENJAMIN CARDIN (D-MD): (AUDIO GAP)
applauding your leadership on this issue. You have really
bought it to the forefront of discussion.
Let me summarize some of the discussions that we've had here
in Columbia, Maryland.
First, we think now is the time to act to preserve Social
Security. Our economy is strong. You've presented a balanced
budget. It's important to save Social Security for future
I'm particularly pleased that this meeting is taking place on
a college campus. But we've heard from young people who have a
direct interest in what we have thought to do.
I agree with the five goals that you have laid out that we
must judge any proposal. But I would hope that you would add a
sixth. And that sixth would be that we increase private savings
in this country so that we have more private funds put into
dedicated to (OFF-MIKE) retirement income that would help
increase the income security for our future retirees.
We've talked about a lot of proposals here and some that have
already been publicly mentioned. But let me just mention one
that we talked a little bit about here, and one that we hoped
would get some discussion. And that is that we would leverage
by directing some of an individual's FICA payment into a
diversified investment fund, provided that the individual
employer is prepared to participate by including some private
retirement plan within his program. Thus, we will be providing
higher retirement income for the individual, greater private
savings, and potential savings for the long-term solvency of the
Social Security trust fund.
We'll share that with you in greater detail. But the
important thing is that the national dialogue has begun. And we
in the third congressional district look forward to that
CLINTON: Thank you.
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE NANCY JOHNSON (R-CT): (AUDIO GAP)
including New Britain, Connecticut, this forum. And my seniors
here in New Britain would like to say something to you.
Nothing is more important to us -- nothing is more important
to us than Social Security.
The confidence it gives seniors, the financial
security it gives them, coupled with Medicare and the health
care security that that gives our retirees, are just at the
heart of their enjoying their retirement years. And we thank
you for your leadership on this Social Security issue in meeting
the challenge that the future poses for all of us.
And I want to thank you personally, Mr. President, for
working with me and some others to make sure that we did not
increase the eligibility age for Medicare this year as some
wanted to do. Your stalwart voice in keeping -- in preventing
that from happening was critical to our success, and we thank
you here in New Britain for that.
I also want to relay a couple of questions from my seniors
here. First of all, a little advice.
Mike Karlin (ph), the director of our senior citizen center,
wants us to include annual physicals in Medicare as we move down
the line of better preventive benefits.
And then in terms of Social Security, we want to know if you
personally feel confident that the seniors in this room can
count on Social Security and a cost-of-living increase during
all their retirement years, and whether or not their children
will be able to count on Social Security, and as my friend and
colleague, Ben Cardin said, on better retirement benefits
through a more aggressive effort by government to help people
save for their retirement and help their employers participate
in providing retirement benefits in their place of work?
So we want to work with you to save Social Security and
preserve those benefits. But we also want to work with you to
make them better, because it's very hard today to live on just
CLINTON: Thank you.
U.S. REPRESENTATIVE JIM KOLBE (R-AZ): Thank you very much,
Mr. President, and I'm here in Sierra Vista, Arizona, at Buena
(ph) High School with...
You can hear from that we have a very enthusiastic audience
here. And they have a lot interest in this issue. Most of these
juniors, seniors that will be graduating soon, going on to
college, getting into the work force.
I want to applaud you for joining in this dialogue, for
helping provide the leadership in this country -- for providing
the leadership in this country on this issue. It's very, very
important that we start to talk about this issue now.
As has been suggested by others who spoke before me, Social
Security is a great American success story. And there are
millions of Americans today who can retire in comfort and
security knowing the Social Security is there. But as you have
also suggested in your opening remarks, Mr. President, it
doesn't -- that doesn't assure that it's going to be there
forever. And the reason for that is very simple. It is, as you
pointed out, the demographics of what is happening.
People are living longer, which is good news of course, but
for the Social Security system it means more people are retired
and are drawing on those benefits.
KOLBE: And on the other side of that coin, people are not
having as large families. There's a smaller number of workers
out there for those who are retired. So it becomes a greater
strain on people.
I started out this discussion here with the high school
students by asking them how many of them thought they would see
a Social Security payment, and I don't think more than one or
two hands, if that, went up in this audience of a couple of
hundred students here.
So they have a real concern about it. And what I would like
to point out to you and to others is that, as we go into this
debate, we have to balance it very carefully, because, on one
side, we have to assure senior citizens that are getting Social
Security that they're going to be able to have -- know that
they're going to continue to draw those Social Security benefits
and those payments.
But the other side is the generational issue. And that is,
as more and more young people become dissatisfied and have lost
confidence that they're going to see a Social Security payment,
we need to make sure that we restore the generational
credibility to this argument.
And so I would urge you, and all of us, as we go into this
debate to be thinking about not only making sure that young
people are going to be able to retire -- that older people can
continue to draw their retirement benefits -- but that young
people will be able to retire with dignity.
A couple of specific questions that came up here today, Mr.
President -- Do we need to raise the retirement age faster than
is currently planned? That would help provide some security for
the system. And is it necessarily the only solution to have
another tax increase? I think that, increasingly, I'm finding
young people and middle-aged people -- because of more use of
401(k)s and other things -- they want to have a way to put some
of their money aside for themselves.
That's some of the things that we've been talking about here,
Mr. President. Thank you very much.
CLINTON: Thank you, Jim.
WELLER: Well, thank you, Mr. President, and on behalf of the
... of the Holland Home (ph), a retirement center here in the
south suburbs, South Side of Chicago, we want to thank you not
only for your leadership in making this a bipartisan effort, but
for including us and everyone in our communities in Chicago and
the south suburbs in today's discussion.
One commitment you have from all of us here -- and of course,
I represent a diverse district, and there are a lot of
Republicans, a lot of Democrats -- and one common consensus we
have is we want to keep the politics out of Social Security, and
we have a commitment from all of us to work with you to come up
with a real bipartisan solution that saves Social Security for
CLINTON: Thank you.
WELLER: ... as well as the next.
We've had a pretty good discussion here this morning. And of
course, I've had several forums like this in my district, and I
find that seniors, as well as their children and grandchildren,
come up with some pretty pointed questions and concerns.
And one point I thought that was pretty clear, Mr. President,
was that the seniors that are here today -- they made it very
clear that not only are they concerned about their own benefits,
but they're concerned for their children and grandchildren.
And as we look at ways for strengthening Social Security long
term, they made it very clear they do not want to increase
payroll taxes on their children and grandchildren. They want to
save Social Security without raising taxes on their kids.
And you know, I've got a couple of questions that I'd like to
share with you, Mr. President. John Fenema (ph) and Alberdine
Kerr's (ph), who are the president and vice president of the
residents' council here, asked me to share these questions with
And Mr. Fenema's (ph) question says, you know, since 1983,
politicians in Washington have raided Social Security to pay for
welfare, foreign aid and B-2 bombers. When are the politicians
in Washington going to stop stealing from Social Security?
The second question, which is Mrs. Kerr's (ph) question --
she's from Chicago as well -- she says that so many reports say
that Social Security will collapse before our grandchildren can
benefit. And of course, Mr. President, you've put a pretty
short timetable talking about December, coming up with a
negotiated agreement. And they're very interested in what are
your specific plans to prevent Social Security from not being
there when their kids have their turn?
They want Social Security to be there for their children.
And they're really interested in some of your specific ideas, if
you could share them with us today.
Again, I'm committed to working with you, and I want to thank
you for this bipartisan effort.
CLINTON: Thank you. Well, let me try to answer it -- thank
you very much, Congressman.
Let me try to go back over some of what all of you said.
First of all, Congressman Cardin talked about the need to
increase private savings. Some others did. Congressman Borski
talked about the fact that there were still some people on
Social Security living in poverty.
Now, let me try to address those things together, along with
some of the other concerns which were mentioned.
It is true that there are still about 11 percent of
our elderly people in America living in poverty, but it's
important to recognize that that's a lower percentage than the
overall population in America, and that it's just been since
1985 that the poverty rate among seniors is lower than the
overall poverty rate.
Now, what can we do to make it better. There has to be --
there have to be other sources of income. There have to be
other sources of private savings. And that is -- of course, the
possibility that some part of that could come out of Social
Security reform is one of the things that we're discussing.
But over and above that, I'd like to point out that Congress
has done a lot of work with our administration over the last
five years, first of all, to save 8 1/2 million pensions that
were under water when I took office, to stabilize 40 million
others, and to make it increasingly more attractive for
employees on modest wages and for small business employers to
take out 401(k) plans, and then to make it easier for people to
move from job to job and take their 401(k) with them.
We've also dramatically expanded the availability of IRAs.
So we've tried to do some things already to help increase the
ability and the attractiveness of saving over and above Social
I don't think -- no matter what we do with Social Security,
the American people are going to have to be sensitized, the
younger generation is, to do more to save for their own
On the other hand, I think it would be a great mistake, even
for the youngest members of these audiences today, to believe
that we shouldn't preserve Social Security as a universal
guarantee, because without Social Security today, almost half
the seniors today would be living in poverty, even though most
seniors have income over and above that.
So the trick is to save Social Security, but also to have
more income coming to people from private savings.
Now, let me mention just one or two other things.
Nancy Johnson talked about wanting to make one Medicare
statement about annual physicals. I believe that more and more,
as people live to older ages, and are healthier, we'll have to
do more preventive care within the Medicare program.
Nancy, you know we've worked hard to deal with -- to have
more mammographies, for example. We're doing other preventive
screening now. I think the more of that we do, the more money
we're going to save over the long run. And more importantly,
we'll improve the length and the quality of life.
She said people want to know whether the seniors can count on
Social Security. The answer to that is absolutely yes.
The Social Security trust fund, according to Mr. Apple here,
who's got a legal responsibility to tell the truth about it, is
stable until 2029. Now, in 2029, shortly thereafter, the taxes
coming in will only cover about 75 percent of our obligations.
One of the reasons we want to move now is that by making
relatively modest changes now, we can extend the life of the
Social Security trust way out beyond 2029.
Can young people, the high school students here, look forward
to drawing Social Security? The answer to that is they
certainly can if we do our jobs here in the next several months.
You know, a few years ago, I can understand your skepticism
because we were running huge deficits. We were projected to
have $300 billion a year deficits as far as the eye can see.
Now, we're going to have a balanced budget sometime in the next
year, and it's projected that we'll have a trillion dollars in
surpluses over the next decade -- more than enough money, if we
do some other things, to fix the Social Security system for the
younger people listening here today.
But I want to say again, no matter what we do to Social
Security, those of you who are 16, 17, 20 and 21, I know it's
hard to think about the end your life, your later years when
you're that age. But you will have to do more through your
employer or through your own individual efforts to save for your
own retirement over and above Social Security if you want to
maintain your standard of living when you retire.
Now Mr. Kolbe asked a couple of questions about raising the
retirement age, and then Mr. Weller asked about specific plans.
Let me say I don't want to dodge any of that, but I think all
those proposals should be out there on the table.
And I think that the most important thing now is if
I advocate a specific plan right now, then all the debate will
be about that. The first thing we've got to do is to get the
American people solidly lined up behind change. Let's stick
with these basic principles I've outlined, and let's -- I want
to encourage other people to come forward with their ideas.
In December, we'll all sit down and come up with our -- you
know, we'll all put our various ideas on the table, and we'll
begin hammering out a plan that we can present in January.
I still -- I hear some new ideas almost every week coming
from Democratic and Republican members of Congress and private
citizens that I think should be aired. If I put a specific plan
on the table now, it will undermine and weaken debate, not
I do agree with those of you who say it ought to be possible
for us to save Social Security without a payroll tax increase.
I don't think we ought to automatically rule out any ideas over
the next 30 to 50 years, as some would do. But I think that we
plainly know that we can do this and provide for increased
strength of the system without a payroll tax increase, given
current assumptions. So I believe that will be possible.
Now let me just answer one last question. You asked about
raiding the Social Security fund. Let me say that that just
depends on how you look at it.
The Social Security trust fund is basically a guarantee that
certain obligations will be paid out -- to retirees, including
the COLA, as well as to the disabled and to those who are the
survivors who are eligible to be paid under it.
Now, in 1983, when the Social Security reforms were passed,
it is true that the government was collecting more in Social
Security taxes than were needed in any given year to pay for
that. So rather than raise other taxes to pay for other
governmental expenses, the rest of the government borrowed and
gave a bond to the Social Security trust fund, with the full
faith and credit of the United States behind it, a legal
obligation to pay back the money with interest to the Social
Security trust fund when it was needed to pay out.
And so there is no reason to believe that all the money
that's been taken out since 1983 will not be paid back in as
soon as it's needed to meet the legal obligations of the Social
Security trust fund.
By doing that, by borrowing that money and paying it back, we
didn't do anything to affect the obligations of the fund to pay
Social Security recipients in the future, but we did keep the
government from borrowing more money out in the private sector,
competing with the private sector for money, and running
interest rates up.
So I think on balance it's been a safe and sound thing to do.
And I do not believe that the raid has occurred in the Social
Security trust fund. It would be a raid if the money were not
paid back when it's due to be paid to you. But the money will
be paid back when it's due to be paid to you. And that's one of
the things that we have to make sure is never interfered with:
the legal obligation of the United States government to
replenish that trust fund and pay back that money when it's
needed for the recipients.
Thank you very much.