Speaking at AUM, the president pitched individual accounts as a necessary component of an "ownership society" and a key step in overhauling the 68-year-old Social Security system created by President Franklin Roosevelt to insulate aging Americans from poverty.
"We're living longer and we have been promised greater benefits than the previous generation," Bush said. "Start thinking about the math: more people, living longer, with greater benefits and fewer people paying. The government isn't going to be able to meet its promises. And that's the problem.
"One interesting idea that needs to be part of a permanent fix -- it is not a fix in itself -- is to let younger workers take some of their own money and set it aside," he continued. "I like the idea of people owning something. ... I love hearing people from all walks of life saying, 'I own my own business.' I want to hear people saying, 'I own and manage part of my own retirement account.'"
Bush's stop in Montgomery was among the opening acts of his 60-day nationwide tour, The effort is designed to increase public, and thus Congressional, support via a series of heavily orchestrated gatherings billed as town-hall-type affairs.
The president was joined on stage Thursday with pre-selected guests -- including a University of Illinois economics professor traveling with the tour and two grandfathers who appeared alongside their respective 22-year-old grandchildren, both seniors at Auburn University. The local participants were vetted and approved by White House staff.
Tickets to the event were distributed by Republican Gov. Bob Riley's office and the state's seven GOP members of Congress. The session did not include any questions from the audience members to the president.
Bush's opening remarks came hours after a Congressional committee convened Washington, D.C., to begin broad discussions about Social Security reform. Public opinion polls nationally and in Alabama show individual accounts face an uphill battle.
The president acknowledged that landscape Thursday, but promised that he "will convince the American people we have a problem." When that happens, the president continued, "Woe be it to any politician who does not come to the table to find a solution."
Just one of the state's GOP congressmen -- U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers of Anniston -- was on- hand Thursday to welcome the president. Rogers, whose district includes the AUM campus, has not endorsed Bush's plan. Several other Alabama congressmen, including Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile, have expressed concerns, as well, citing a need to see more specifics. Bush made a campaign appearance for Rogers on the Auburn University main campus in 2002.
Bush has not unveiled any detailed legislation, though he has outlined a plan that would let workers under age 55 divert as much as about two-thirds of their payroll taxes into individual accounts. That money could be invested in a series of low-risk stocks and bond funds regulated by the government. The president has promised -- and he repeated the pledge in Montgomery -- that he will not push any change that would affect benefits for workers who are already older than 55.
Administration officials often tout analyses that forecast the government's payroll revenues, under the current system, will fail to cover Social Security's promised benefits as early as 2018. Bush cited those reports again Thursday and also repeated the contention that the system would be "bankrupt" by 2042.
He did not address a common criticism from opponents that individual accounts for younger workers would cut Social Security's revenues, potentially speeding the scenario where benefit costs outweigh the system's income.
While Bush did say that "all options are on the table," he also did not mention the possibility of increasing the amount of income subject to payroll taxes. The limit is currently $90,000, meaning any wages above that amount are not taxed for Social Security. Raising the cap, an option the president has said he would consider, would not affect the payroll tax rate, meaning workers who earn less than $90,000 would see no change.
As in other stops, Bush's remarks Thursday included a call for bipartisanship. But Democratic leaders in Congress have indicated they will not agree to any reform that includes indi vidual accounts.
And Alabama Democrats at the State House Thursday appeared equally resistant. The state Senate voted 21-10 along party lines Thursday morning to urge Congress not to privatize Social Security.
"Why would we endanger Social Security so some stockbroker up in New York could earn some money?" asked the resolution's sponsor, Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville. "That's wrong."
Sen. Larry Dixon, R-Montgomery, had told his colleagues how proud he was for Bush to visit his district. As soon as Bedford's resolution had passed, Dixon went to the microphone to say the measure was "demagoguery in its truest form."
Outside on the Capitol lawn, Democratic Party activists and labor leaders organized an hour-long event featuring more than 800 signs with slogans such as "Hands off my Social Security" and "Privatization = $152,000 benefit cut." Speakers told participants that Republicans have been trying to unravel Social Security since its inception.
Kenneth Blaylock, a Montgomery resident and former international president of the American Federation of Government Employees, questioned the president's credibility. "This is the same man who said there was an immediate crisis in Iraq," Blaylock said.
Former Gov. Don Siegelman, a Democrat, dropped in on the event and was able to address the crowd. "I want to give the president the benefit of the doubt," Siegelman said, prompting giggles from two women near the stage.
Siegelman later found his way to the AUM campus, one of the few visible Democrats to witness Bush's appearance.
Loss of energy agency jobs prompts appeal
By Melissa Harris
March 11, 2005
Workers at Department of Energy headquarters in Germantown and Washington are circulating a petition supporting an appeal to the Government Accountability Office over the loss of 91 positions to a private company.
It is the first loss of jobs at the Energy Department's two headquarters since the Office of Management and Budget released new rules on public-private competitions in May 2003, called Circular A-76.
The petition appoints Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, to internally represent the 60 affected employees, who handle building maintenance and logistics. Thirty-one of the lost positions are vacant.
The goal of private-public competitions is to reduce waste and cut costs.
During standard competitions, typically ones in which more than 65 positions are up for grabs, an in-house team representing employees puts together its best offer, and private companies put together theirs.
"What we're doing is smart shopping," said David Safavian of OMB.
Last year, in-house teams won about nine of every 10 competitions governmentwide, but often not without making sacrifices. Agencies' proposals usually offer to do the same job with less - either with fewer people or from fewer buildings.
If a private company wins a standard competition, workers can elect someone to appeal directly to the agency chief. The circular also permits the head of the in-house team, called an agency tender official (ATO), to file a protest on employees' behalf.
If those efforts fail, a majority of affected workers must convince the ATO to appeal to the GAO on their behalf. Congress has prohibited unions and workers from making such appeals directly.
However, if the ATO "determines there is no reasonable basis for the protest," he or she can drop it, the law states. Unions contend ATOs don't have enough autonomy from management to challenge decisions.
"It is a rubber-stamp, one manager passing judgment on what another manager says," said John Threlkeld of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Mold removal at FMS
Cleaners are performing their final sweep of the Financial Management Service offices in Hyattsville after mold was discovered in the 10-story building in September, officials said.
FMS officials tested for mold after workers complained about scratchy throats, coughing and itchy, watery eyes. One employee went to the hospital during this period, but Sharon King, who supervises the building's staff, said that the incident was not mold-induced.
King also dispelled rumors that the mold was of a highly toxic variety, called "black mold."
"The mold was black in color, but it wasn't black in the sense of classification," King said.
It's unclear how long elevated levels, defined as higher concentrations than outside, were present. Quarterly air-quality tests conducted prior to the discovery didn't include such checks, she said.
King has since implemented changes. A building engineer now monitors temperature and humidity levels. Officials also have purchased new vacuum cleaners, and hired people to take apart the fan coil units and spray them with fungicide. Cleaners also are about to finish a sweep of the air ducts.
Mold levels also will be checked every quarter, but unions representing the 1,500 workers in the building said that they also want regular cleanings scheduled.
NSA's secret numbers
An astute reader wrote last week: "I know that the exact employee count from the National Security Agency at Fort Meade is classified, but my map shows that the entire reservation is Anne Arundel County. And the last time I looked, there were almost certainly more than 8,000 civilian employees at NSA."
After following up on his letter, the data cited in last week's column on the number of federal jobs in Anne Arundel County omitted information from the NSA.
There's also no way of knowing the correct figures.
"NSA does not report numbers on jobs or salaries, or unemployment data to us," said Linda Sherman, a spokeswoman at Maryland's Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation. "They're secret. Everything is confidential."
The omission doesn't just throw off statistics on labor trends in Anne Arundel County. NSA's work force is large enough to skew any data from the state's labor department on the federal sector.
Sadly, those statistics are the only measurements available.
The only thing the state can say for sure is that the NSA is Maryland's largest employer.
Sherman said that someone from NSA calls her office every year to learn whether the top-secret agency has retained its title. She said the telephone conversation goes something like this:
State: "Do you have between 6,000 and 7,000 employees?"
State: "Do you have between 7,000 and 8,000 employees?"
And so on, and so on, until NSA answers "Yes."
By Jerry Seper
THE WASHINGTON TIMES
Published March 10, 2005
A House subcommittee is investigating the possibility of merging two of the country's front-line agencies in the war on terrorism, amid concerns that ongoing turf battles, financing problems and low morale threaten national security.
The inquiry targets U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), two agencies within the Department of Homeland Security assigned the task of preventing new terrorist attacks.
"We are engaged in a war on terror where control of our nation's borders is critical," Michael W. Cutler, former U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) senior agent, told the subcommittee yesterday.
"But a wall has been truly erected between the people at CBP and the people at ICE. They have separate chains of command that, at this point, you can't have if you are trying to fight a war on terrorism and a war on drugs."
T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, which represents all 11,000 of the Border Patrol's non-supervisory agents, said although the reason for creating the agencies was to give enforcement authority to CBP at the border and ICE in the nation's interior, "it's obvious to even the most casual observer that this distinction is almost artificial."
Rep. Mike D. Rogers, Alabama Republican and chairman of the House Homeland Security subcommittee on management, integration and oversight, said the panel wants to know whether a merger would allow the agencies to better meet the threat of potential attacks and enhance immigration enforcement.
Rep. Christopher Cox, California Republican and chairman of the House Select Committee on Homeland Security, attended the hearing, saying questions remain two years after the department's creation whether it is managing its immigration enforcement and border security resources "in the most efficient, sensible and effective manner."
Much of the criticism over the past several months has targeted ICE, with supervisors and field agents saying the agency lacks a defined mission and has fallen victim to poor management.
"ICE's accomplishments in two short years speak volumes about the quality of work being done here every single day," ICE spokesman Dean Boyd said yesterday. "We are achieving record results."
Last month, Homeland Security acting Inspector General Richard L. Skinner also said he was examining a merger of ICE and CBP at the request of Sen. Susan Collins, Maine Republican and chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Also testifying yesterday was David Venturella, former director of detention and removal operations at ICE, who called a merger of the two agencies "unnecessary at this time," but warned that efforts had to be made to "redistribute programs to provide a logical alignment" of operations, assets and resources.
"The experiment of forcing square pegs into round holes and jumbling numerous programs under one roof has served only to diminish ICE's focus on enforcement," he said.
More funding, more hiring will secure borders
By Elton Gallegly
March 11, 2005
Illegal immigrants from countries with ties to al-Qaida have obtained false identities and crossed into the United States from Mexico, FBI Director Robert Mueller warned a congressional committee Tuesday.
While this isn't new information, the timing is notable. Five days prior to Mueller's warning, a parent who lost his son in the Sept. 11 attacks and the national president of the National Border Patrol Council sat before another congressional panel. Their mission was to persuade Congress to fully fund the 2,000 additional Border Patrol agents Congress authorized last year for this year, not the 210 agents the administration has requested.
It was a soft sell. Few issues have found immediate bipartisan support in this Congress, but this is one of them.
In fact, one of the people who testified with the parent and the Border Patrol representative was one of my colleagues, Rep. Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas. Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Claims, of which I am a senior member, Ortiz noted:
"The southern border is literally under siege, and there is a real possibility that terrorists -- particularly al-Qaida forces -- could exploit this series of holes in our law enforcement system along the southern border."
In the past year, Ortiz said, the number of OTMs -- Other Than Mexicans -- apprehended along our southern border has increased 137 percent.
There has also been an increase in apprehending illegal immigrants with criminal records -- 30,000 between May and December of last year. That's the good news. The bad news is that authorities believe two to three times that number escaped detection -- meaning 60,000 to 90,000 criminal illegal immigrants managed to gain access to the United States in an eight-month period. Is it any wonder that terrorists see an opportunity here?
In his testimony, Mueller said the FBI has identified a route through Brazil that illegal immigrants from al- Qaida nations use to obtain false identities -- including assuming Hispanic names -- before heading for Mexico and the U.S. border. While no one in the intelligence community will say publicly whether or not any terrorists have been captured along our southern border, all are warning that it is a serious loophole in our homeland security net.
Which is why Congress will be adamant in insisting that the 2,000 Border Patrol positions this year -- and the 10,000 additional agents over five years -- are an absolute national security priority and will be funded.
As Peter Gadiel quoted to the immigration subcommittee from the 9/11 commission report: "Terrorists cannot plan and carry out attacks in the United States if they are unable to enter the country." Gadiel's 23-year-old son, James, was on the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center North Tower when American Flight 11 slammed into the building.
It's only fair to note that the increased detention of criminal illegal immigrants along our southern border has come about because of the implementation of databases that allow Border Patrol agents to better screen those they apprehend. The administration makes that point in arguing that more Border Patrol agents are not necessary. I respectfully disagree. If anything, it shows that we must step up our efforts.
The Border Patrol now consists of about 10,000 front-line employees. In the last fiscal year, according to TJ Bonner, president of the National Border Control Council, they apprehended nearly 1.2 million illegal immigrants trying to cross the border. Bonner estimates 2.4 million to 3.6 million weren't caught. Again, at least 60,000 to 90,000 of those were illegal immigrants with criminal records. Some may have been terrorists. Technology will never replace good old shoe leather and the smarts, dedication and perseverance of a trained agent on the ground.
"While suitable technology can undoubtedly be useful in detecting intrusions, it is incapable of arresting a single violator," Bonner testified.
I agree. National security is Congress' No. 1 responsibility. It will fail that responsibility if it fails to fund 2,000 additional Border Patrol agents this year and 10,000 more over five years.
-- Elton Gallegly, of Simi Valley, represents the 24th Congressional District that covers portions of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. He is chairman of the Subcommittee on Europe and Emerging Threats and a member of the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in the U.S. House of Representatives.