Social Security tops Clinton State of Union address
Traditional speech given amid impeachment drama
January 19, 1999
WASHINGTON (AllPolitics, January 19) -- President Clinton delivered his annual State of the Union address Tuesday before a Congress torn over impeachment, outlining a bold plan to bolster Social Security, save Medicare and create new 401(k)-style retirement accounts for American workers.
Clinton smiled often and looked comfortable as he greeted lawmakers upon entering the House chamber. For their part, members of Congress gave him a cordial bipartisan welcome for his seventh State of the Union address.
Although the president's speech focuses on policy, at least four House Republicans boycotted Clinton's speech, despite Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Illinois) urging that all House members attend.
Clinton began his speech by welcoming Hastert to the speakership and mentioning two special guests sitting with Hastert's wife in the House Gallery -- Lyn Gibson and Wei Lung Chestnut. They are the widows of the two Capitol Police officers who were killed by a gunman in the Rotunda last summer.
In an attempt to wrench public attention away from the impeachment debate, Clinton highlighted U.S. economic gains made during his administration.
He cited "the highest home ownership in history, the smallest welfare rolls in 30 years and the lowest peacetime unemployment since 1957."
"For the first time in three decades, the budget is balanced. From a deficit of $290 billion in 1992, we had a surplus of $70 billion last year. We are on course for budget surpluses for the next 25 years," Clinton said.
The surpluses are the result of spending curbs lawmakers set in the 1997 balanced-budget act and tax revenue flowing from the healthy U.S. economy.
Top priority: Social Security
Saving Social Security was the main focus of the president's speech. Many Republicans have eyed the budget surplus for tax cuts. but Clinton stated other plans.
"First and above all, we must save Social Security for the 21st century," Clinton said.
"Last year we wisely reserved all the surplus until we knew what it would take to save Social Security. Again, I say we should not spend any of it until after Social Security is truly saved," he said.
The president suggested using 60 percent of the extra money over the next 15 years -- or $2.8 trillion -- to directly bolster Social Security's cash reserves.
Of that, Clinton proposed "investing a small portion in the private sector just as any private or state government pension would do."
Many Republicans strongly oppose government-controlled investment of Social Security money, citing the risk of political interference in private companies.
Clinton proposed another 15 percent would go to strengthen Medicare, the nation's health insurance program for the elderly and disabled.
"I propose that we use one out of every six dollars in the surplus over the next 15 years to guarantee the soundness of Medicare until the year 2020," he said.
Like Social Security, Medicare is expected to be financially overburdened by the huge, aging baby boom generation.
In addition to saving Social Security and Medicare, Clinton proposed another 11 percent of the surplus, or $500 billion, should go to new government-subsidized retirement savings accounts.
Clinton included in his speech one major domestic policy initiative not in the prepared text released to the media: an announcment that the Justice Department is filing suit against tobacco companies to recover billions in Medicare costs the government blames on smoking.
Saying the states were right to demand that tobacco companies pay for the health costs resulting from smoking-related diseases, he said any money obtained from the suit would go toward boosting Medicare.
A tobacco industry spokesman, Scott Williams, immediately denounced the president's plan as a "blatantly a political action" designed to divert attention from the impeachment debate. He said the Justice Department has repeatedly reviewed tobacco company practices and never sued in the past.
Other highlights from Clinton's prepared text:
Education: "We must do better. Each year the national government invests more than $15 billion in our public schools. I believe we must change the way we invest that money, to support what works and to stop supporting what doesn't."
Trade: "We must tear down barriers, open markets and expand trade. At the same time, we must ensure that ordinary citizens in all countries benefit from trade -- pressing for trade that promotes the dignity of work, the rights of workers, the protection of the environment."
Crime: "My balanced budget will help put up to 50,000 more police on the beat in the areas hardest hit by crime, and to equip them with new tools, from crime-mapping computers to digital mug shots."
Immigration: "We have a responsibility to make immigrants welcome here and they have a responsibility to enter the mainstream of American life. That means learning English and learning about our democratic system of government."
Despite surplus, no tax cuts
President Clinton also called for the first increase in defense spending since the Reagan administration, a move likely to be popular with Republicans.
"It is time to reverse the decline in defense spending that began in 1985. ... My balanced budget calls for a substantial increase in the next year for readiness and modernization, and pay and benefit for our troops, and sustained increases over the next six years."
But Clinton's speech was to include nothing on tax cuts and thus is certain to set up conflicts with many Republicans who want the budget surplus used, at least in part, to reduce taxes.
Correspondent John King and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Tuesday January 19, 1999
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