Monday, July 18, 2005

Three Letters from Congressmen

Wow, two updates for the price of one! This weekend, I got another letter from a different Congressman, this time from John Linder of the U.S. House of Representatives. Also, I dug through some old mail and found that I had indeed also received a reply from Johnny Isakson, which is three replies for three letters. First things first: I offer my apologies to Mr. Linder, who I incorrectly identified as one of my senators in the earlier post. In fact, he is the Seventh District Representative from Georgia. The two senators, of course, are Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson. It was a stupid mistake made in the heat of trying to get the entry posted. And, of course, I hope no one took my earlier post as a knock on Senator Isakson, whose letter I promptly received before the other two.

The text of my letter was exactly the same as that posted in the comments of my earlier post. I've posted Senator Isakson's and Mr. Linder's complete replies to me in the comments of this post. I've reviewed both letters below for no good reason other than I've got a little time to kill today. These reviews are based solely on somewhat objective measures, not on politics or beliefs.

On informational content, the clear winner is Saxby Chambliss. His was the only letter I received that exceeded a single page. While normally I admire brevity and succinctness, Senator Chambliss's letter clearly had more "guts" to it than the others did. He was the only one who mentioned any details about what Congress is doing to resolve the problems facing Social Security. He quoted sources, dropped names of political rivals he's working with, and made a stand on the issue. Well, as much of a stand as a politican can make, anyway.

On personalization, Johnny Isakson gets kudos. His was the only letter that didn't seem to be a form letter in its entirety. I was very impressed when at the end of his letter, he says, "[T]hank you for your suggestions on how best to reform social security. Rest assured, I will keep your thoughts in mind as Congress discusses this vital issue." Nice. Although whoever typed this forgot to properly capitalize "Social Security," at least one of them tried to make me feel like someone read the letter that I sent and responded specifically to what I wrote. I think all of the signatures were printed on the letters instead of personally signed. I've copied scanned pictures of all three below.

As mentioned before, Saxby Chambliss's signature is broken by the print on the letter. If the letters were raised or made of some sort of wax ink, I could explain it away, but they're not. Johnny Isakson's signature was obviously printed. When I did a high-res scan of it, you can actually see the aliasing ("jaggies") produced by the printer, and worse, you can actually see spots where the resolution of the printer isn't quite up to snuff. The content of the letter was the most personal, but the signature was obviously a printout.

John Linder's signature at a glance looks geniune, as if it were made with a blue magic marker. Why anyone would sign a letter with a magic marker is beyond me, but whatever floats your boat, I suppose. The places where lines in the signature intersect (e.g. where the extension line of the capital J crosses through the rest of the name) are darker blue than other places in the signature, which is clever. However, when I flip the letter over (does that make me a flip-flopper?), there is no bleed-through at all. Now I don't know if you remember when you were five and drew on paper with a magic marker, but my mom would always fuss at me if I didn't have something under the paper I was drawing on to absorb the extra ink. The letter's paper doesn't really look special, and I would expect the same bleed-though to happen on it if Mr. Linder had really signed the letter personally, but there is none, nada, zip. Just to test my theory with scientific investigation, I got out a Sharpie® and signed my name on an unused part of the letter. I didn't have blue, but you can see the results below of what happens when red is used:

I'll let you decide what to make of the signatures. By all means, post a comment and let me know if those thoughts run deep.

As for style, it's a toss-up. Saxby Chambliss's letter is printed on a slightly thicker stock of letterhead; the other two letters are on thinner paper. This gives it a bit more of a professional and "Congressional" feel to it. John Linder's tone was a bit more informal than the others, and I've got to admit that it makes him seem a little more like just an average kind of guy than the others. Saxby Chambliss was never anything but formal and, one could argue, slightly inapproachable. Saxby Chambliss's letter was the only one that used the standard convention of having the person who typed the letter's initials at the bottom. There is a small "SC:ca", indicating that the letter was written by Saxby Chambliss (initials SC) but typed by someone else ( initials CA). However, this was slightly undone by the fact that all three letters were watermarked with The Great Seal, but Saxby Chambliss's letter was printed with the watermark upside down. John Linder's had the watermark with the correct orientation, but it was marked with the wrong year (2004, instead of 2005 as the other letters indicated). Oh well, I guess I'm just being picky now, and I certainly would never base my vote on whose watermarks are correct.

If you find this entry remotely amusing or interesting, I highly recommend that you read The Senator Prank by John Hargrave, who pretended he was a fifth grader and wrote to all 100 U.S. senators (as of 2003), told them that he wants to be a comedian when he grows up, and asked them what their favorite joke is. And, of course, I highly encourage you to write to your own Congresspeople or even President Bush and let them know what you think about the issues of the day.


At 2:42 PM, Blogger Skippus said...

From me to my Congressmen:

With the recent plans regarding Social Security being discussed in national politics, I have been thinking more about my retirement plans and the availability of government resources when I get older. As an average American (as much as there can be an “average American,” I suppose), I wanted to share some of my thoughts in the hopes that it may help provide insight and perhaps even some ideas on how to proceed in the somewhat controversial topic of Social Security reform.

I understand that Social Security is a very expensive program, and that is of great concern to me. As one of the largest government expenditure programs, I would like to see every effort made to curb the long-term costs of this program. This is a compelling reason to support a plan to privatize Social Security, since the more money people receive from their own investments, the less money they receive from the government. However, I have some concerns and suggested changes to the plan being offered by President Bush.

As you are probably painfully aware, most Americans think of Social Security not as the tax that it is, but as a savings account. They do not understand that the money they have paid into the system has been paid to the existing recipients of Social Security benefits, and they believe that it would be extraordinarily unfair should their benefits be cut or eliminated after paying so much money every year.

Also, I think that most people are aware that even the most conservative private investments have risks associated with them. If Social Security taxes are converted into private account investments, most people will earn positive returns above the rate of inflation, but there will inevitably be some who make bad investing decisions that, at the time, seem safe. I do not believe that these people should effectively be punished because of their lack of knowledge about financial investments.

I think I have a solution to address the latter concerns. It seems to me that there is no reason why the best of both worlds—privatization and security—cannot be provided. I believe that the best course of action would be to convert the Social Security tax into low-risk private investment accounts, but keep a minimal version of the Social Security plan intact to provide a guaranteed benefit in the event that the returns from the private account fall below the former Social Security payment amount.

Perhaps an example would help explain the idea. Imagine that under this plan, Aaron pays money into a low-risk private investment account, and when he turns 65, the account begins paying him back $750 per month, the amount that Social Security would have paid him before. (I am making up these numbers since I have, in fact, never received a Social Security payment and do not know what an average amount would be.) Aaron lives a full life and, when he passes away, there is still some money remaining in his private account, which can be distributed per his wishes since it is his money. Now imagine Bert, who also pays money into a low-risk private investment account. When he turns 65, however, his account has not had a very good rate of return and he only receives $500 per month. The reformed Social Security system would pay Bert the $250 difference between what he is receiving and what he would have received under the old Social Security system. The fundamental assumption is that there would be a lot more people in Aaron’s situation than Bert’s, thus reducing the money needed for Social Security to a minute fraction of what it is currently. In fact, this is a key assumption in President Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security, and frankly, one that seems reasonable to me. To pay the minimal costs of the new Social Security system, a tax could be collected either on money being contributed to the account or money being withdrawn from the account.

The benefit of this plan is that it gives both sides of the Social Security privatization debate what they want. There is a significant cost savings to the Social Security system, and individuals have the opportunity to own the money for their retirement. There is also a guaranteed payment that offers security to everyone, regardless of investment performance.

The only remaining issue, of course, would be how to make up the budget shortfall for paying existing benefits when the money currently being contributed to the Social Security system is redirected into private investment accounts. Obviously, since I do not want to increase the budget deficit, this is an issue that should be addressed, perhaps by allowing an incrementally larger amount of money every year to be redirected, thus having only a small program deficit each year. I see no reason why under a system such as this, eventually the entire system could be privatized. There would be no more deficits in this program, and in fact there would eventually be a surplus that could be used for other purposes. (Paying off the debt incurred by the deficits in the previous years would be my suggestion.) In other words, at some point in the near future, Social Security could actually be a revenue generating program instead of an expenditure!

I hope that this idea may prove useful in the Social Security debate, and I appreciate your time and attention.

At 2:50 PM, Blogger Skippus said...

From Johnny Isakson:

Thank you for contacting me regarding Social Security. I appreciate hearing from you, and I am glad I have the chance to respond.

I agree with President Bush that Social Security faces a crisis and that the time to address that crisis is now. The longer we wait, the more painful and the more costly the solution becomes.

We keep seeing a lot of numbers and dates tossed around, but the key date is 2018. That is the year that the amount of Social Security benefits we're paying out will exceed the amount of payroll taxes we're taking in. That's just 13 years from now, and the financial picture only gets worse and worse after that year.

The President has placed Social Security at the top of his agenda because he knows that this crisis can be avoided and the system can be fixed. I agree with the key principles he has set forth: that Americans 55 and older will be guaranteed their benefits, that there will be no increase in payroll taxes, and that his proposal for personal accounts would be voluntary, not mandatory. Beyond that, all options for reform should be on the table for discussion.

The President knows that any reform is going to take good people finding common ground, and I look forward to working with him and fellow members of Congress to tackle this reform now.

Additionally, thank you for your suggestions on how best to reform social security [sic]. Rest assured, I will keep your thoughts in mind as Congress discusses this vital issue. I hope you will not hesitate to call on me in the future if I can be of assistance to you.

Johnny Isakson
United States Senator

At 2:57 PM, Blogger Skippus said...

From John Linder:

Thank you for contacting me about Social Security reform. I appreciate your taking the time to contact me.

Social Security was enacted in 1935 as a system to provide continuing income for individuals during retirement. Over time, Social Security was expanded to include disabled workers, spouses, and dependents. There were an estimated 44 million Social Security beneficiaries in 2004, while roughly 145 million workers paid payroll taxes into the system. Today's workers pay one dollar out of every eight earned monthly into the Social Security system to pay for current retirees' benefits.

Social Security is in need of fundamental reform. Social Security was established as a "pay-as-you-go" system, meaning that the payroll taxes paid by current workers are used to pay benefits to current beneficiaries. In 1950, there were 16 workers per retiree. Today, there are three workers per beneficiary. In the coming decades, the worker-to-retiree ratio will fall to two workers for every one beneficiary.

Those who deny there is a financial crisis looming over the Social Security system worsen the problem, placing the financial burden on our children and granchildren who, if the system is left as it is today, will have no guaranteed Social Security benefits upon retirement. There are a number of different proposals to preserve Social Security's long-term solvency, ensuring that Americans have benefits upon retirement. Congress, President Bush, and the American people will have to work together to establish as Social Security system that is fair to all and will guarantee the program's financial solvency. The President has proposed to establish voluntary personal accounts. While his plan has not been released in detail, I look forward to discussing Social Security reform in the 109th Congress, and I will support reforms which address the financial crisis of Social Security and ensure the solvency and durability of the system.

Thank you again for contacting me. If I can be of assistance in the future, please do not hesitate to call on me.

John Linder
Member of Congress

At 2:59 PM, Blogger Skippus said...

From Saxby Chambliss:

Thank you for contacting my office regarding the Social Security program. I appreciate hearing from you.

While the Social Security program does not face an immediate crisis, in only a few years when the baby-boomers begin to retire, benefits paid out will begin to exceed funds flowing in. According to the 2005 Social Security Trustees' Report, beginning in 2017, there will not be enough money coming into the system to pay full benefits. Furthermore, the Social Security Administration's trustees project that by 2041, Social Security's trust funds will be depleted, and the program will not be able to pay all its promised benefits. According to the Social Security trustees, if no action were taken until the trust funds become exhausted in 2041, payroll taxes would have to be increased by nearly 35 percent above the current tax, or benefits would have to be reduced by 26 percent. In order to avoid these consequences, something needs to be done now to fix the system.

Social Security is, and has always been, an important program. Today, the Social Security program provides benefits to retired and disabled workers and to the survivors of deceased workers. Currently, nearly 48 million Americans are receiving some form of Social Security benefit. We must ensure that this program continues to provide benefits to the working Americans that deserve what they have earned.

As you know, the major source of funding for Social Security is the payroll tax paid by today's workers, including federal employees and members of Congress. In 1950, almost a decade after the Social Security program was created, 16 workers paid into Social Security to support one beneficiary. Today, there are about three workers for every retiree, and when workers entering the work force today retire, there will be only two.

Both Democrats and Republicans recognize the problem and the need to fix the program. In 1999, Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND) said "Fixing Social Security is an urgent priority. It ought to be at the top of both parties' agendas." Senator Kent Conrad (D-ND), the ranking Democrat member on the Senate Budge Committee, recently reiterated Senator Dorgan's comments and said "It is time to address this problem. Social Security must be preserved and strengthened."

In 2001, a bipartisan presidential commission made three recommendations to improve the Social Security program. All three proposals included some form of voluntary personal retirement accounts that would allow younger generations to build their own retirement savings outside of Social Security, while at the same time protecting and preserving benefits for today's seniors and those near retirement.

As Congress begins the debate on how to address Social Security's pending financial problem, please know that I will not support any proposal that does not give a 100 percent guarantee that all current and future beneficiaries will receive their benefits. Furthermore, I will support a proposal that makes the current system solvent and allows younger workers to voluntarily build their own nest egg for their retirement security, which they would own and be able to pass on to their children and grandchildren.

Thank you again for taking the time to contact me. As always, I appreciate hearing from you. In the meantime, if you would like to receive timely e-mail alerts regarding the latest congressional actions an my weekly e-newsletter, please sign up via my web site at:

Very truly yours,
Saxby Chambliss
United States Senate


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