Friday, January 14, 2005

Ford's Way

Whatever his position on Social Security, the congressman has a plan of his own.

Posted By on Fri, Jan 14, 2005 at 4:00 AM

U .S. representative Harold Ford Jr., the 9th District Democrat and prospective U.S. Senate candidate who has been under fire this week for his positions, real or alleged, on Social Security, is at pains to distance himself from various proposals to create private investment accounts from the Social Security fund.

Ford suggests (see "Tilting Right?") that his positions have been misunderstood or misrepresented and offers as an example of the kind of innovative entitlement reform he does support a bill he introduced last July, entitled "The America Saving for Personal Investment, Retirement, and Education Act (ASPIRE)."

What the act would do is establish a "KIDS" saving account for every newborn, who would be issued a Social Security number. Accounts in the amount of $500 each would be opened for them automatically, with children below the national median income eligible for a supplementary grant of up to another $500.

The accounts, indexed for inflation, would be paid out of the government's general revenues fund, and provisions would be established allowing for matching grants from private sources.

In the language of the bill, the purpose of the measure would be "to encourage savings, promote financial literacy, and expand opportunities for young adults." Although hardship exceptions could be applied, the bill calls for repayment of the initial investment at the time the recipient reaches the age of 30.

The bill would also establish "a range of investment options similar to those offered by the Thrift Savings Plan, including a government securities fund, a fixed income investment fund, a common stock fund, and other funds that may be created by the Board."

No action was taken on the bill last summer, but the bill, co-sponsored in the Senate by Pennsylvania's Rick Santorum, the Republican Conference chair, will be re-introduced in the current session, said Ford's spokesperson, Mark Schuermann.

Ford, who, as this week's cover story documents, suffered some direct hits from various members of the blogosphere last week, also got some indirect -- and presumably undeserved -- shrapnel from the revelation that black commentator Armstrong Williams had been paid $240,000 in federal funds for shilling for the Bush administraton's No Child Left Behind program.

Though Ford had no relation to that circumstance, his name ended up being mentioned on some of the established blogs and e-mail networks by virtue of the fact that Williams had from time to time praised the Memphis congressman. As they say, with friends like that ... .

At the precise moment that members of the Shelby County Commission were locked into a debate Monday on partial privatization of local corrections services, Governor Phil Bredesen was holding a press conference in Nashville to announce significant reductions in the scope of TennCare, the state's medical insurance system.

There was an eerie parallel between the two situations. In the same half-hour that an audience member in the county building was pleading that the privatization measure would cost "1,500 union jobs, affecting 1,500 families," Bredesen was detailing his plans for cutting 323,000 adult Tennesseans off the TennCare rolls -- a fact which was duly announced to the commission by Shelby County mayor A C Wharton in his somewhat later testimony concerning what he saw as an urgent need for the commission to approve a local privilege tax for legislative consideration.

The two situations had a common bottom line: namely, that revenues for public services are drying up.

During commission debate, a proposal was advanced by Cleo Kirk that state senator Roscoe Dixon, now an aide to Wharton, be prevailed upon not to resign his Senate seat this Friday, as commission chairman Michael Hooks had announced. Kirk said it was because of Dixon's expertise and the fact that legislators with his precise knowledge of the county's proposals don't grow on trees.

Hooks, who wishes to run for the seat when it becomes vacant but doesn't seek an interim appointment, said he would take the matter up with Kirk and Wharton.

State representative Kathryn Bowers, another aspirant for Dixon's District 33 seat, was the beneficiary of a busy round of four fund-raisers held in Memphis and in Nashville over the weekend. After the beginning of the legislative session this week, fund-raising by members of the General Assembly is prohibited -- yet another reason why Hooks doesn't covet an appointment just now.

Quote of the week: "Get some devastation in the back," said by Tennessee senator Bill Frist to a staff photographer getting a picture of him as he prepared to leave a tsunami-devastated region of Sri Lanka. The photographer had easy pickings.

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