PRESS BRIEFING BY
NATIONAL ECONOMIC ADVISOR GENE SPERLING
The Briefing Room
MR. TOIV: Good afternoon, thank you for waiting. As you know, next week, December 8th and 9th, we're going to hold the White House Conference on Social Security. And, as you know, the President's staff has been working hard on this, led by Gene Sperling, who is the President's National Economic Advisor. Gene is here today to brief on the conference.
He's going to try to give you, as best he can, some of the schedule, some of the people who are going to be participating. Please keep in mind the conference is six days away; we are trying to do this early in order to help those of you who are writing on this early, but some of the details may change a little bit between now and then. I just want to leave that open a little bit. But we're going to be gone tomorrow, so we really need to get this done today. But I think Gene will be able to help you a lot in writing your stories and setting this up.
And I give you Gene Sperling.
MR. SPERLING: As you know, last year, or at the beginning of this year, in the President's State of the Union, he called for reserving all of the surplus until we had a bipartisan solution for Social Security. He also started and called for a bipartisan and open dialogue on Social Security, with bipartisan forums throughout the country, in an effort to derail the third-rail mentality that and has often stifled Social Security reform.
That effort has, I think, been largely successful. We saw this year Democrats and Republicans at these forums exchanging ideas. We saw plans come out -- books, studies, press reports. I think that it has been a year that has generated a lot of thoughtful commentary and public attention on the issue of Social Security and why 1999 offers a historic opportunity for us to act together, not because we're in a crisis, but because we have an opportunity to prevent a crisis by acting now, at a time when we can take rational steps and in which we have the benefits of a much stronger fiscal situation to deal from.
The President also said in the State of the Union that he wanted to come back in early 1999 and start a Social Security reform process, working with members of Congress from both parties. The White House conference that we're going to have on December 8th and 9th is in many ways a pivot point that wraps up the bipartisan forums we had this year and starts laying a foundation for the continuing building of trust and working together that we would need to have a long-term Social Security solution done in 1999.
The forum -- the conference will provide a unique opportunity to bring together Democrats and Republicans prior to the beginning of the major legislative action in a context which there will be some open forums that are open to the public, but also by creating a context in which Democrats and Republicans from both the House and Senate can spend time together in a confidential, closed-door session and talk to each other and have
the benefits of a well-balanced group of experts helping to facilitate the discussion.
This, we think, would be a positive step in getting people talking to each other and saying that the first start of the Social Security reform is one that will continue, we hope, to be a civil and bipartisan and ultimately productive year and process.
Let me give you some of the details. We have tried to construct this forum as the three previous forums were done. In that case the AARP and the Concord Coalition have largely helped put them together and ensure that they were balanced. We hope that we have done as good a job as they did working with us before to do that.
We will start on December 8th. It's at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel -- and I think we'll try to give out some paper on this a little later so you have these details -- at 10:00 a.m. with an opening session at which the President and Vice President would speak. And we've also asked the leaders, both the House and Senate, to either come or to designate someone to speak in the opening session, which is similar to what we've done in the bipartisan forums.
We will then have a public panel that will talk about the challenges of Social Security reform, particularly focusing on what the fiscal situation is, how the budget surplus does or doesn't change the challenge, so that we can start with an overall context. The two presenters would be Marilyn Moon, from the Urban Institute, and Rudy Penner, who is a former Director of the Congressional Budget Office. And I should mention that Marilyn Moon is currently serving as the public trustee of the Medicare and Social Security Trust Funds.
After a break, we would then have a panel that would look at the ways that Social Security reform will impact on different parts of our population and what types of impacts different reforms will have. In this one, Alicia Munnell, who, you may remember, was a member of the Council of Economic Advisors, and Assistant Secretary of Treasury, now at Boston College, will present, as will Carol Cox Wait, a long-time leader and spokesperson for fiscal discipline. She's head of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, and her group did a number of forums throughout the country. Kilolo Kijakazi -- I've been practicing all day -- at the Center of Budget and Policy priorities, and she works on Social Security and other issues affecting disabled Americans. And then Richard Thau, from the Third Millennium Group, who has been a prominent spokesperson for reform and for the perspective of younger adult Americans. Mrs. Clinton will convene this panel, open the second panel.
The third panel will be the longest one, because it will deal with the difficult and provocative proposals on many different sides that involve setting aside, or pre-funding, Social Security in some way that involves getting higher returns through investments in equities or other private sector measures. As you know, some people have proposed them through forms of individual accounts; others have proposed them in terms of Social Security or some form of independent investment board doing the investment themselves.
We have an excellent and, I think, very diverse panel. Henry Aaron at the Brookings Institution -- Henry Aaron and Robert Reischauer just put out a very fine book that goes to many of the issues but also has a specific proposal in there where they call for a Social Security Reserve Board, modeled on the Federal Reserve Board, to do equity investments. Carolyn Weaver, also from the American Enterprise Institute, she has been one of the most prominent spokespersons for more of the individual
account proposal, and was identified with one of the three options that was put out by the Social Security Advisory Commission.
Also, to the extent anybody is thought of as being the father of Social Security these days, it's Robert Ball, who was the Commissioner of Social Security under several different Presidents. And if any of us are as productive when we're in our early eighties as he is, we'll all be very happy. He is still active and has just also written a book recently on the issue.
The fourth person is Jose Pinera, who was Chile's Minister of Labor and Social Security from 1980 until 1983. Chile took a very strong privatization proposal, and he is now at the Cato Institute. I think his perspective is self-evident.
And then Gene Steuerle from the Urban Institute, who has worked with the Breaux, Gregg, Stenholm and Kolbe group on their proposal.
So that will be the --
Q Will it have any liberals on it?
MR. SPERLING: Well, I don't know how you would define people, but I think that Henry Aaron and Bob Ball are certainly Democrats. And I think they would consider themselves good Democrats, I would think.
We then are going to have an off-the-record session in which we are going to allow different members of the -- we're going to divide up, different members of Congress, Republican, Democrat, different members of the administration, experts, and have several breakout sessions. And the purpose of this is to give people in the audience, who are all fairly significant people in Social Security, rather than just have the situation where people just sit in the audience and a few get to ask a question, this will provide virtually everybody there an opportunity to be engaged in a serious discussion with some of the top policy-makers.
The next day we are going to try something we feel is --
Q Who is going to be asking the questions in those sessions?
MR. SPERLING: I think what it would be like is you would have perhaps a Democrat from the House and a Democrat from the Senate, a Republican from the House and Senate, one or two members from the administration, and then you would have perhaps in each one 40 or 50 people, and then they would facilitate a discussion. And part of this is because we wanted to provide people who came this way for the conference an ability to be involved and to have some honest dialogue without fear of everything they're saying being on the record.
Q Are those going to be closed to the press?
MR. SPERLING: Yes.
Q We can't go into any of those?
MR. SPERLING: Yeah, that's right.
Q And, Gene, who is the audience? MR. SPERLING: The audience is -- there have been about 250 people invited, and they range from experts to people from the AFL-CIO to the Heritage Foundation to -- just all the different people. Some people have just been recommended by different members of Congress who have written to us. So it is a very wide and balanced -- we hope balanced -- group, obviously.
Q How many members of Congress will be there?
MR. SPERLING: Let me get to the members of Congress now. We've asked each of the leaders to designate for the second day a number of members, initially 10 to 12. And what we are going to do on the second day -- and this will also be a closed-to-the-press session -- is that we are going to divide up into two groups, having two groups of 30, a balanced group of House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, administration members, and have each of those groups go through two panels.
And the goal of this is to start off the Social Security reform process by providing, we think, a unique opportunity, which is creating an opportunity where Democrats and Republicans from different chambers who may rarely have a chance to talk with each other, an opportunity for them to talk in an off-the-record way with what we think are a few of the very top experts who have been most engaged in the Social Security issue.
The presenters for one will be Bob Greenstein from the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, and he will be teamed with Ken Kies, who is the former staff director of the Joint Tax Committee. So, as you see, our goal was to team together people who would signal very much that this was meant to be a balanced presentation, and we are asking them to work together so that they can provide a coordinated presentation.
On the issues relating to the different investment and pre-financing options, the two experts will be Robert Reischauer of Brookings and former CBO director, and Martin Feldstein of Harvard University, who has been working closely with several of the Republican members on their particular plans.
Just let me mention a couple of other things. Then there will be a closing session with the President and the Vice President and members of Congress, following the off-the-record session that will take place in the morning.
Other elements -- as I said, the Conference will be held on December 8th at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. On the 9th, when we're just having the members of Congress, it will be held at the White House.
There will be a Social Security Conference web page, which I think will be helpful in the sense that it will have almost all the information from the past three conferences, so to the extent people are trying to dig up speeches, transcripts, et cetera from the past three conferences, they will be there. We will be doing a satellite to all 50 states -- Ken Apfel at the Social Security Administration has helped to set this up -- 60 different satellites in 50 states.
We also asked each of the conference -- people invited to the conference, to submit, if they chose, a two-page paper on their views on Social Security reform. We will compile that and give that out at the first day, and that will be a way, again, to try to let everybody have a way to express their views and hopefully make it easy for the people in this room to quickly see the perspectives of a large number of people who will be critical in the Social Security debate.
Concerning Dick's question, 225, 250 people got invitations and, as I said, it came from a wide list of business, labor, academia, senior, youth groups, and others. So, with that, I'd be happy to take questions.
Q Do you know what members of the leadership are actually coming?
MR. SPERLING: We have not heard back completely on that. We've heard back some, so I think that we will be able to give you a better reading of who the exact members of Congress are coming. All have indicated, though, that they want to participate, either themselves or by designating people, and that's what happened in all the previous forums.
Q Gene, just out of curiosity, whose idea was it to do the secret sessions? And what do you think someone would say about Social Security behind closed doors that they wouldn't say about Social Security publicly?
MR. SPERLING: I think that the reason to do that is because I think that at the beginning of a legislative process, the understandable instinct of people is to stake out the safest position, publicly, that they can be at, even if they think there's room for common ground or compromise. It's hard for people to be at a starting point; it's hard for a member of Congress to, perhaps, ask a skeptical question about a proposal from somebody in their own party, et cetera, perhaps, in a public forum.
So I think that -- I'll tell you my experience. When we were doing the forums, I thought some of the most important things were when the Democrats and the Republican members flew together, came together. They usually spent a considerable amount of time talking to each other in a pretty straightforward way. And I had, several times, people come to me and say, you know, I talked to so-and-so, I'd never really talked to him about Social Security, and he's pretty serious about this. I didn't think he was, but he's pretty serious, or he's pretty practical, he's pretty reasonable.
And I think that that made us believe that, while what's going to clearly happen, and what should happen, is clearly Democrats are going to caucus among themselves and Republicans are going to caucus among themselves. And that's normal and understandable. But, I think, to have a major legislative initiative and to bring together a forum where they can come in a well-balanced -- experts and talk off the record with each for a few hours, spend three hours with people, different parties, and talking about Social Security, hearing different views. I do not know what other opportunity members will have to go through something like that. And to do it at the beginning, I think, does offer an opportunity to build some bipartisan trust in an area that has been often typified by very partisan and very harsh rhetoric in the past.
So we're trying to do what we think would be most helpful in moving the process forward and laying a foundation for a civil and bipartisan process on Social Security.
Q Gene, does the President plan to submit specific legislation next year, or is he just going to draw up principles and have Congress draft legislation?
MR. SPERLING: The President will do whatever we think, after having full consultations, would be the most effective in bringing people together for Social Security process. There are no shortage of ideas on that, and I think we have to weigh them carefully.
Q Just to follow up, what did Daschle have to say about this issue this morning with the meeting with the President? Would he like to see the President -- the White House back legislation?
MR. SPERLING: I think I have to leave to Senator Daschle to say what he said in the room to the President. I will say the following: The discussion was about 90 percent on Social Security, and it was very much on how to work together. We talked about the fact that normally members are not engaged in active policy discussions in December, are often at home, and come back more for the State of the Union. And we talked about that we needed to find a way to expedite the discussions, that everybody -- being understandable, people's schedules, needed to find a way to bring people together and to get working at a faster and quicker level. Because it goes to the previous question.
If you're trying to find out what is going to be the best way in the political environment to bring people together, as opposed to do something that would lead to polarization, you have to have a feel for what the different major players think and they have to have a feel for what their caucuses think. And so, while we could speculate on what we think would be different measures, if we're smart about this, we want to have as good an idea as possible, whether laying down a specific plan would help start the process and bring people together, or whether that would unnecessarily polarize things in a way that might not happen if you laid down guiding principles or called for a bipartisan process. And those are things that we need to discuss not only with Senator Daschle and Congressman Gephardt, but also with the new Speaker once he is settled in, as well as Majority Leader Lott.
Q Well, Gene, Gephardt said very specifically this morning that the President would be coming forward with ideas and that he was helping -- Democrats were helping the President with those ideas. That sounds like there is a decision but needs to go further than the principles that have already been enunciated, does it not?
MR. SPERLING: I think if you're asking in the early part of '98 whether we want to try to move the process forward, going further, there's no question about that. I think it's really what the form is. And one of the things that we asked them to help us think through was not just the substantive issues on Social Security, but also what's the best way that we can get this done. And that means, quite candidly, how to work best among our own party while still reaching out a hand across the aisle to the Republicans, because ultimately this has to be a bipartisan vote and a bipartisan bill if it's ever going to pass.
Q The rumblings -- Senator Lott -- may not come themselves next week. What does that say to you all about what the next step here has to be, or how you can move forward?
MR. SPERLING: Well, I think, in fairness to the new Speaker, he's going through a transition. We've been through those before. And I think he's -- our conversations with him in the conference have been conciliatory and so I do not know whether he is planning on coming at this point or whether he feels uncomfortable because he's not yet actually Speaker or not, but I think you need to know that we have had conversations with Republicans who have come to our forums -- Congressman Kolbe, who has taken a very active role; Senator Santorum, Senator Gray, Senator Domenici -- there have been many Republicans who have been -- who have shared their ideas with us, who have come to the forums, who have made clear that they are serious about wanting to engage in Social Security. And they've done so often as the designee of the leader.
So we'd like to have everybody, but I wouldn't -- as much as we like this conference and think it's a good thing, no major legislative issue, whether it's Social Security or a major budget issue, is ever going to be resolved in a day-and-a-half conference in December. It's a long period. So the real question is, is this a step that's going to move things forward or not, and we're very hopeful that it will.
Q Recognizing that he's not ready to put anything out publicly, has the President, nonetheless, settled on what he would like to see come out of this?
MR. SPERLING: I'm sorry, you mean for this substantive result for Social Security reform? We've had good meetings with the President and I think that we -- I think he is wrestling with some of the difficult issues. I do not feel that he has locked in on one specific proposal at this point. I think he is very up to speed; he has taken this issue very seriously. And I think that part of his thinking, as our thinking, is not just on what we think is the ideal plan if we ruled the world, but what is a plan that would meet his principles and his objectives while still being able to bring a bipartisan majority together in both Houses.
And so I think that's a more complicated and difficult and strategic and more important type of consideration than I think one has when one has the luxury of being at an academic institution or something where one can just simply put out their own plan to generate ideas.
Q Do you know how much of the conference will the President participate in, and can you give me a little bit more detail on the difference between the breakout panels on the first day and the meetings on the second day?
MR. SPERLING: The President will give an opening address. I believe he will participate, most likely in the first panel, though I think we are still going to have to -- I think that's one of the things we are still going to talk about. And then he will participate in the closing, which will be designed to bring him and others of the leaders up to speed on what went on in the morning conference, conferences. But, ultimately, he's the boss and he, you know -- he may decide to do more, engage in other ways. But he clearly will be involved in the opening and closing, and I think he will want to participate in at least the first session.
Part of it, though, I want to say, is we're trying to gear this so that members of the audience, who, again, are all significant people in Social Security reform, that they have a chance to ask questions and make comments. And so it's very much going to be structured that way, as opposed to just having elected officials dominating the individual panels.
Q Can you explain the difference between the breakout sessions and then the sessions on the second day?
MR. SPERLING: What happened, really, was that we thought that it would be a positive thing to see if we could create a forum for Democrats and Republicans to get to know each other on this issue and to talk with each other. And as we shopped it around, many of the people in the interest groups and from the experts thought it was a great idea, but they thought it would be a better idea if they could be involved in some way. And so we, upon taking that advice, really created a context where the members of the audience themselves could have that opportunity. So the main difference is that the second day is really just members of Congress and several members from the administration, while the day before will be a chance for the people from the expert and interest group and advocacy organizations to be able to speak directly to members of Congress and
Q Who will be representing the administration at this?
MR. SPERLING: I don't have the full list, but certainly the people that have been very involved so far would be -- besides myself -- Ken Apfel, the Social Security Administrator; Larry Summers, who has helped coordinate, with myself, our technical working group; Jack Lew, OMB director, who was, as many of you know, integral in the 1983 Social Security Reform; Janet Yellen; Secretary Rubin, I'm sure. So there will be several others.
Q Will we see any more -- I mean, will the President give a -- obviously he's not going to do an entire plan during this, but will we get some better idea about the principles or his ideas or anything like that during this conference?
MR. SPERLING: I will probably save that for -- let you see what he says. I think he will certainly stress what he believes should be the substantive goals of Social Security. There's a lot of discussion on the form, the financing, all of the different mechanisms. And, ultimately, this is about protecting what has been, really, the crown jewel of progressive government, a universal and fair and guaranteed retirement system that has dramatically reduced elderly poverty in our country. I think he will point to some of the places where the elderly poverty rate is still too high, among some subsections, and the need, particularly with elderly single women, to address some of those issues.
Q Some of the people you've invited to this conference, Gene, have expressed really low expectations of getting anything done and passed by Congress next year. Would you address what you see as the major political obstacles to a bipartisan agreement and, particularly, the extent to which the impeachment proceedings have poisoned the climate?
MR. SPERLING: I think the political obstacles are pretty clear. This has been a very sensitive issue for many years. It's an issue in which members of both parties have often paid a political price for coming out with specific ideas. And so I think that it is the building of trust and trying to create an environment where people can disagree on different ideas, where people can debate, say they're against a particular forum or for a particular forum without questioning the intentions of the person advocating that.
I think that for most of the year that really did go on. I mean, there really was, at our forums, basic policy debate. People disagreed, but it was not done in an attacking type of way. So I think that finding both a common-ground solution and a process that gets you there, I think those are both -- they are related, but they are two different challenges. One might be able to think of plans that could bring people together, but have difficulty finding processes where people could get there.
Often, in the last several years, the success or lack of success of particular major initiatives that were controversial and required bipartisan support was whether or not some forum was created, or process, for people to work together. And that's one of the things we are going to have to be discussing with members of both sides.
Q Just to follow up on that question, though. Congressman Gephardt said earlier this morning -- and, obviously, in a different context, talking about impeachment: talked again about the mistrust that exists now between Republicans and Democrats; talked about Republicans laughing at him when he spoke on the House floor about limiting the inquiry; talked about the degree of clarity that exists right now. What about the second half of that question, which is, in this climate right now, with the lines hardening on this impeachment issue, can you still conduct business? Can you get trust on this issue?
MR. SPERLING: The President has always kept his focus on the major policy issues. He has instructed his policy advisors to keep their focus on that. That's what we have done. I mean, we had these bipartisan forums all through this year. There were often things going on at the time, and still members of both parties showed up and were engaged in discussion. I've had discussions with both Democrats and Republicans throughout the whole summer, hearing their ideas.
So all I can say is that we are going to keep our focus on Social Security. It is probably the most important issue, affecting the most people's lives, of any domestic policy issue that exists right now. And I think any elected official or dedicated public servant should want to take advantage of what could be a historic opportunity to do something that I don't know if we've ever done in this country, which is to look out at a long-term problem and, well before the crisis moment happens, come together to fix it.
And you have to look at our fiscal situation. In 1993, we had significant deficits that were going to be rising. The Social Security situation looked almost impossible, on top of already rising deficits. Now we're in a situation where our country is not only in balance but has significant projected unified surpluses, and this offers an opportunity for us to come together and do Social Security reform in a way that could gain decent support.
And if we don't, and if we let the surplus dissipate or go to other issues, those who will come next will have a much more difficult task, both because the problem will be that much closer, and because they may not have the resources that are available to us at this moment.
Q Gene, when do you think legislation needs to be passed before the issue will become usurped by the presidential campaign?
MR. SPERLING: I think that that's a good question. (Laughter.) I mean, we've approached this -- no, I mean, we've approached this with a practical eye from the beginning. We did not think that we could engage in this effort in '98, partly because we didn't think that there had been enough public attention focused on reform, but also because of the possibility that it would get caught into the election cycle and that would make things difficult.
It's hard to predict what the presidential cycles will feel like, and the primary cycles will feel like in the fall of 1999, or whether there will be dynamics that will make it more difficult. But I think it's a reasonable enough question and a reasonable enough concern that it makes a lot of sense to get an early start on Social Security reform, and certainly that is a good, practical reason for wanting to ask everybody who is going to be involved in this to get as engaged as possible as early as possible.
Q Gene, what is the President doing to create an atmosphere in which the Democrats can talk to one another? This is about a bipartisan bridge you're trying to build, but you've got another bridge to build in your own party. So what is the President doing on that front?
MR. SPERLING: Are you talking about the different substantive views different Democrats have?
MR. SPERLING: You raise a good point that while we talk about Democrats and Republicans, there are significant differing views within the Democratic Party and on the Republican side. What
Senator Daschle and Congressman Gephardt are seeking to do is to bring together groups of people within their party who represent different views and get them working and seeing if they can find some common ground among themselves.
And we have assured them that we will consult with them and be helpful in any way; that we can, and that we want to, have a very good and active working relationship, certainly, with the people on our party who are going to be key involved in this. On the other hand, we've also made clear that this has to be bipartisan and that we also will always be open to discussion and consultation with the key Republicans in both the House and Senate, as we have been for this year.
Q Gene, aren't the sessions a little bit tipped towards people who are anti-private accounts. Like your first public session there, it sounded like that was more people who would be --
MR. SPERLING: Who were anti-private account?
MR. SPERLING: No, if you look at their -- really what you have is you have two very prominent advocates of individual accounts, Carolyn Weaver from the American Enterprise Institute --
Q On the first session. It will start with Marilyn Moon and Rudy Penner. That one sounds like it's more --
MR. SPERLING: No, first of all, let's look at what the different panels are. The first one is really going over the budget and fiscal issues, and so you have two people who have expertise in that area -- Marilyn Moon, who has been an expert in both Medicare and Social Security and is a trustee, and Rudy Penner, who is very well respected, was Republican Congressional Budget Office Director. I really don't even know what his particular views are. But that's really to lay out the fiscal situation.
The other on the -- the second panel on different groups, my guess is that Richard Thau, the 3rd Millennium Group, has been an advocate for reform proposals including private accounts. Carol Cox Wade is mostly known -- again, has been a strong advocate for fiscal discipline for many years. You'll need to ask her, but I do not believe that they are closed to that option.
And then, as I said, the main panel that deals with that issue has two very prominent advocates of the investment by Social Security, itself, inequities, which is Bob Ball and Henry Aaron, two very prominent advocates of individual accounts; Carolyn Weaver and Jose Pinera; and then Gene Steuerle of the Urban Institution who has worked with a bipartisan group and has a -- I think a more government-oriented individual account, more based on the thrift saving plan that many of us are in with our pension.
So it was very much designed to have people on each side and some middle -- and you're also going to, again, have a very well-informed audience. You can never do these things perfect, but we've really bent over backwards to try to be balanced in every way we can.
Q This morning several women's groups had a press conference and expressed great concern that women are not really going to have a strong enough voice in this conference, and women being more dependent than men on Social Security and for a longer number of years, and normally with less money available to them. And how great is the focus going to be on women's -- the impact of various reform proposals on women, and what are you doing to make sure that they do have an appropriate voice?
MR. SPERLING: Well, first of all, as I just said previously, I think one of the important substantive goals for Social Security reform does need to be protecting its progressivity and that it does have many positive design options -- designs right now that do help women, particularly lower-wage women or women who have stayed at home and raised their children. And I think that protecting those things that are positive and progressive is important, but it's also important to try to address things that have not worked as well.
And I think when you look at -- one of the most disturbing statistics in Social Security is that a married women over 65, 4.6 percent are in poverty. A single elderly woman is closer to 20 percent. And so there clearly is a problem in the poverty level of some subsections, and focusing on that should be a major, substantive focus of Social Security reform.
We have tried to meet with different people, including different groups who represent women's interests, to get their views. I think we have one panel that is predominantly men, but I think we will have, with the closed session, that's just how things worked out. But we will have Bob Greenstein and others who have been real advocates.
But in the public panels, Marilyn Moon, Alicia Munnell, Carol Cox Wade, Kilolo Kijakazi, Carolyn Weaver, Mrs. Clinton, so I believe, really, half of the 12 people presenting on the first day. And Alicia Munnell, I think, is going to specifically address some of the issues affecting women. So we really have tried to reach out to different people, get their views and, as best we can, incorporate them into the conference. It's hard to do everything just right for everyone; we've made the best effort we could.
Q Gene, do you think the President would be inclined to sign major tax relief legislation if Congress has not first worked with him to hammer out a consensus on Social Security?
MR. SPERLING: A hypothetical question.
Q How do you see the tax debate linked to the Social Security reform surplus debate?
MR. SPERLING: Well, I think you know what our view is. Our view is that all of the surplus should be reserved for Social Security until we know what is needed for a bipartisan Social Security fix. If Social Security can be fixed with -- not using all of the surplus, then there would need to be an important national discussion about what else it should go to.
I can tell you certainly that Medicare has to be very high up on that list. We've made a special effort because we think there's a historic opportunity to have a long-term fix of the Social Security solvency issue this year, but certainly Medicare will certainly be an issue that needs to be considered for any remaining surplus. But, certainly, any observer of the political debate has to know that tax cuts will certainly be presented by others. But I don't think we want to try to go to that point right now.
Our focus is on reserving the surplus until we can get a Social Security fix, but I just should say that there are many important competing interests for the surplus. And, certainly, some people will simply argue for additional debt reduction as well.
Q So, realistically, you would expect all of this debate to come together at some point next year, rather than dealing with them discretely?
MR. SPERLING: I just can't predict that. If this year has taught me anything, it's that no one can predict anything.
Q I'd like to get back to the timing question. Does the administration feel any particular pressure in terms of the financing of Social Security to enact legislation in a year, two years, or three years? Is there any timeframe in which you feel you need to get legislation in place in order to deal with the financial problems that the trust fund faces?
MR. SPERLING: I think the political realities are that 1999, as an off-election year with a Democratic President in his second term, and a year of focus on Social Security that we have had, offers a unique opportunity to address this, and also with having the strong fiscal situation that we're in. So I think, in a practical, political sense, one does have to worry that if we do not get Social Security reform done this year, we do not have a good effort, that one does not know when another opportunity will come that is as opportune as this, and one does not know whether many of the resources that could have been available have already been drained elsewhere.
And, if so, as I said, Social Security could be a much more difficult task, both because of less resources and because the closer the problem comes, the harder the solutions are.
Q Gene, what do you say to critics such as Senator Breaux who say it's the Medicare Trust Fund which actually is going to run out first, and that by focusing on Social Security you are squeezing out an opportunity to really get something done on Medicare this year?
MR. SPERLING: Well, I think that on Social Security we have had, from the Social Security Advisory Commission, a significant amount of discussion. There's been a significant amount of ideas developed, and our view was that this presented a historic opportunity to have a fix for the solvency of Social Security well, well into the next century.
Medicare, absolutely, remains a vital concern. We just implemented very significant reforms, and the process of thinking of what comes next and how to deal with a very dynamic health care market is one that is being considered, really, for the first time, post the balanced budget, right now by Senator Breaux and others.
So I think that recognizing that there is a historic opportunity to take care of one major entitlement issue should not mean that the other is not very important. The fact is, the honest, practical fact is, that reform in these areas is very difficult, and having a major accomplishment on Social Security would do a tremendous amount and would make it easier to focus on the future in Medicare.
But that is not to say, and I want to be clear about this -- that is not to say that we will put Medicare aside. We very much want to hear what the commission has to say. The President is very concerned about this, about the issue. And it very well could be something where we could make some progress on -- if not this year, soon.
So we think there's an excellent group and Senator Breaux and his Vice-Chairman Thomas have been working very hard, and so we are very interested. But I don't think because one sees an opportunity to make major progress in one area, they don't care about the other, any more than the fact that we focused on Medicare in 1997 meant we didn't care about Social Security.
Q Gene, even though a good portion of this conference will be a closed-door session, are you planning to have any final product, any set of options, recommendations, anything in document form as a result of this?
MR. SPERLING: No. I think what you're asking for is really -- I mean, we're really at the point now where the final product of everything we're going to do is whether or not we get legislation. And so we really see this as a step, laying the foundation, getting people to work together, talk to each other, see if there is bipartisan common ground. I think in order to have that type of recommendation you would need to be in a position where each of the leaders felt comfortable to designate people who could speak for their whole caucuses, and I don't think they're there at this point.
That's not a criticism -- it is only December 2nd, the election was just a few weeks ago, this is pretty early. That being said, we would like all parties to expedite as quickly as
possible their reviews so that we could move expeditiously and so that we can consult on what people think will be the type of process and what role the President can take that will be most helpful in moving the debate forward.
Q A couple questions. To what extent is this go-slow approach based upon experience learned from the health care issue a couple years ago? And, secondly, is there any attempt to coordinate the White House conference with the states on those to days?
MR. SPERLING: On your last question, there are 50 satellites -- there are 60 different forums being held around the country in all 50 states that there will be a satellite into. So in every state there will be at least one forum going on in which they will be getting a satellite of the conference.
Q Members of the Social Security Commission?
MR. SPERLING: Yes. Yes. On the first part of your question, I certainly reject the go-slow notion. It's December 2nd. We're calling together members from both parties to come together for a pretty unique conference and chance to work together. The President has been the one who has been pressing this, trying to move forward. So I think that the President has been moving with strength and speed.
But, as to the second part of your question, no apologies from learning from experience. And absolutely we look at all the different efforts that we've had -- not just health care -- over the last six years and we try to learn as best as possible what is the best way to foster an environment to get something significant done. And I think we were the first to admit that we've made mistakes in the past; we might have done health care somewhat differently with 20/20 hindsight. But, again, every situation is also unique. So, yes, I think you have to learn from what you've gone through before.
I think the one thing that clearly tells you is that you have to have as good a feel as possible for what the different dynamics are in the House and Senate and within each of the different parties to have the best sense possible of what actions the President takes that will be unifying, as opposed to polarizing.
So I think that in our effort to talk with people in both parties and encourage them to get engaged, we are trying to learn as much as we can about that environment so that we can be as effective as possible.
In the end, what will count is whether we get this done in a way that strengthens the President's principles -- strengthening solvency for the 21st century; and keeping universality and fairness; and protecting the survivor and disability aspects of Social Security, the basic bedrock guarantee; and keeping its fiscal discipline. And that's going to be the ultimate test for us.
Q Can you give us the website address?
MR. TOIV: You can get it off the web. Go to the White House.
Q The White House?
MR. SPERLING: Thank you.
President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore