THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
1:24 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the White House briefing today. Today the subject is Social Security and its solvency. The President of the United States will address that subject and more, and I will have in a short while the Commissioner of Social Security here, along with the President's National Economic Advisor, to brief you at detail.
Q Will that be after the President's remarks?
MR. MCCURRY: The length of that briefing will be in inverse proportion to this one.
Q Do you know what's in the report yet?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. We do, don't we? Now we do. We didn't this morning, but we've had some conversation back and forth, and they have announced it. So it's okay for me to talk about it.
Q What's the lead?
MR. MCCURRY: The lead is I'm going to get Social Security for three additional more years without having to worry about solvency. Well into the next century.
Q What is it beyond -- 2023?
MR. MCCURRY: 2029 -- the solvency of the OASDI fund goes from 2029 to 2032, and the actuaries estimate the HI solvency, which is the Medicare solvency, to the year 2008. This is already clattering across the wires. And the President will address this and say while it's good news that the economy is performing in such a way that we can -- that the trustees can make an estimate about extending the solvency of the funds, that in no way, shape or form diminishes the importance of looking for a bipartisan solution that will address the long-term solvency of these questions.
Q It goes now to 2032?
MR. MCCURRY: 2032 for the Social Security fund; 2008 for the Medicare fund.
Q The Congressional Budget Office had earlier, after the balanced budget deal, projected that the Medicare fund would go through 2010.
MR. MCCURRY: There have been different estimates that were in the range of about a decade, which is what the administration said -- 2008 is the number that conservatively the trustees, the Social Security trustees, agreed upon in the report filed today.
Q Mike, will these numbers change the President's determination to hold on to any budget surpluses for Social Security?
MR. MCCURRY: I expect in a short while you will hear him say, certainly not. We need to keep whatever surpluses arise in the federal budget deficit available to address these long-term problems. Interestingly and probably more significantly, in this report today they'll say why today there are about three-and-a-third workers proportionately working to support every Social Security beneficiary; by two decades into the next century there will only be two. And that, obviously, if you're reducing the number of people in the work force paying payroll taxes, the funding available to pay out benefits that are accruing to today's baby boomers won't be there unless we take action.
Q Mike, can we go through some of the pros, reforms, and you can tell us how the President feels at this point about, for example, increasing the age from 65 to 67?
MR. MCCURRY: Wolf, a trick question. I can't do that because what the President has made clear is that people with good ideas -- and there are a number of them and you've cited several -- need to come forward now the point we're in at this debate and talk about those things that we could do to address the long-term needs of the system.
They are not altogether unknown; this has been a debate that's gone on now for a decade. What the President is doing is fostering an environment in which those who have got some ideas about the long-term solutions can step forward, make the arguments for it and we can build a strong, bipartisan national consensus. What the President does not want to do is to suggest that there is one and only one plan that can work to address the long-term needs of Social Security, thus making that a lightening rod for criticism that might jeopardize or poison the ability to achieve a bipartisan consensus.
Q You've had 35 years of solvency. I mean, how far do you want it to go before you -- and how much do you think you can actually predict in the future?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, Helen, because you will be here well into the next century, too, as we know, you know that one of the concerns we have is the demographic reality of the largest cohort in the history of this program retiring along about that time. So while we have got solvency in the fund until the year 2032, that's exactly the point at which today's baby boomers will be drawing on the resources of the Social Security system in a very unprecedented way, which is why we're better off today while the sun is shining, fix --
Q How do you know that fund isn't going to keep building?
MR. MCCURRY: Because we -- that's why the report and the trustees do the actuarial estimates to tell us what the shortcomings are going to be in the future. If you doubt the wisdom of the actuaries, one of them will be here -- one of the trustees will be here and he can tell you probably in some great detail how they estimate the future payout from the system.
Q You seem to betray some concern that this will be received on the Hill, this news will be an excuse to do something else with the money.
MR. MCCURRY: I think there have already been numerous suggestions on the Hill of how else to spend the money. That is a concern. That's why the President stressed that we ought to hold in reserve surpluses that arise in the federal budget so that we save Social Security first.
Q You talked about trying to achieve some sort of bipartisan consensus on how to address Social Security's long-term problems. Would the President support a congressional committee, special committee or panel of a bipartisan nature to look at these problems?
MR. MCCURRY: We are keen on seeing bipartisan involvement in the process that has already been structured by the President, which includes the administration's support of the regional fora, one of which has already occurred in Kansas City. Those are being done already with not only input from both political sides of the aisle, but also from organizations that have sometimes taken different views on the question of how to fix Social Security in the long-term -- specifically, the Concord Coalition and the AARP.
We've got them all involved. They've been very appreciative of the involvement of leading Republican members of Congress who are thoughtful and outspoken on this. I think that the point that sponsors of the commission legislation were making is that they want to see more bipartisan involvement, and so do we. And so we will do that. We think, frankly, we've got a process leading up to the White House conference that will occur in December that will work, but because we do want to make it bipartisan, we'll continue to talk to Congress about the ideas they have on how best to generate solutions for the long-term.
Q Mike, from their point of view as long as you can control and run the process.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we have made it very clear we are open and accessible and, indeed, already have been accessible to the ideas that others have brought forward. I think if you asked Senator Santorum he would certainly echo that view, since he said he valued his participation initiative forum in Kansas City.
Q Two questions. One, your refusal to comment on the idea that maybe an increase in the retirement age would certainly be one of the first things considered -- your refusal to comment on that suggests a reaction to the lesson of 1986 -- is that not the case?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, no, I would prefer to say it's a result of the lesson of 1987, that we've seen how you can best achieve bipartisan consensus on difficult issues. We balanced the budget, an historic agreement between Republicans and Democrats in the Congress and with the administration, because we refrained from putting together a specific plan that would initially poison the debate. We held back, worked to build the kind of support and consensus for an agreement that both sides would support and that led to the history-making balanced budget agreement that the President was delighted to sign into law. That's the model that we are working on here, and exactly why we're choosing to let a thousand flowers bloom as we examine solutions and then build the support necessary to see the right ones grow.
Q Oh, wow.
Q I'll send flowers.
MR. MCCURRY: Not bad.
Q The other question, unrelated to flowers, Mike. Mike, if I may --
Q -- wait until after the November election?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President has taken the view privately that we could do it this year irrespective of the election. But we are mindful of what the Speaker and others have said, that as a practical matter it makes more sense to build the process, identify the solutions, build support for the solutions, and then have the new Congress address this early beginning in 1999.
Q Now that you've mentioned the Speaker, I'd like to ask you about two of the things he said last night. He said many things about the administration of the President, one specific and one general. The general one: He said there's no administration in American history with less moral authority than the Clinton-Gore administration. Would you respond to that?
MR. MCCURRY: He's wrong.
Q All right. The specific thing he said was that the President could fire Ken Starr if he wanted to, and he said if doesn't want to fire Ken Starr, he should tell his staff to shut up.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the Speaker was giving a political speech in front of a political audience -- a group that he has used in the past to generate funds -- or one of the leading contributors to this group that he addressed, is someone who has paid a significant amount of money to support the work that people have done to investigate the President in Arkansas, and there have been current allegations now made that are subject of some further inquiry that the Justice Department is making on that. I can easily understand why the Speaker would want to change the subject away from that subject to just make what is a rank partisan political attack.
This is the Speaker's -- it's real simple what's going on -- he was signaling to you that they intend to try to keep alive the swirl of allegations by way of doing political damage to the President. So this is about politics, it's not about the truth or about telling people to shut up, or whatever. This is about the Speaker giving a political speech. He's the Speaker, he's entitled to make a political speech. We'd rather see less politics and work on problems like Social Security, child care, some of the things that we've been turning our attention to -- the tobacco settlement that we need to pursue. That's where we're going to keep our focus.
Q -- to a lot of people to understand how, when this type of language is used on either side, it's possible then, the next day, let's say, to sit down together and compromise on important issues.
MR. MCCURRY: It's a real good question, Sam, and it's one of the peculiar things about Washington that I think make the American people angry. They want to see their leaders like the Speaker and the President working to get things done, like protecting kids from tobacco, like balancing the budget, like figuring out how we're going to fix Social Security for the long-term, like taking care of the needs of families who need child care when they're going to work, like making sure we continue to make welfare reform work. They want, in short, to see the American people working on the things that the President of the United States comes out every day and tells you he's working on, and they want to see a lot less of this partisan, political in-fighting that looks like it's all shadow dancing and done for cosmetic political reasons, because it doesn't really reflect the reality of what happens when people get serious, go into a room, start working on the nation's promise the way they're supposed to.
Q Glad I asked. (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: Want some more of that?
Q No. Actually, it's the Speaker who should shut up, then?
MR. MCCURRY: No, look, the Speaker -- they're raising a lot of money and generating a lot of political fire in their base in the far right by pursuing these political attacks. Probably in other circumstances, other subjects, it would be fair to say that Democrats sometimes do things to rile up their base in a similar way. But it's got nothing to do with solving the problems of the country and getting on with the work that we should be working on.
Q I understand that the economy is doing better than what was expected -- it's going to extend the Social Security and Medicare funds. But why is the Medicare fund not as extended as far as the Social Security fund? Do you know why that is?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, it's because the structure of the funds and the claims -- the claims are entirely different and the health care claims that are made through Medicare are different than the retirement income claims that are made by people who are drawing out of Social Security for their retirement benefits. Just because it's two different programs I guess is the right answer.
Q Does the performance of the economy and the market give you more comfort in some Republican proposals that would have a portion of Social Security money invested in the private market?
MR. MCCURRY: You're asking on a day when the market is up 20, and not yesterday, when the market is down over 100?
Q I'm asking in a year when it's up 20 percent.
MR. MCCURRY: I think that we are interested in long-term solvency. And to the degree that privatization of some aspect of the fund can play a role we will listen respectfully to the arguments for that point of view without necessarily ruling it out. I think that as a general proposition our take on the issue of privatizing Social Security is pretty well-known. We don't think that is a good idea, we don't think that that is the way to preserve and protect a system that's worked extraordinarily well now for many generations to protect America's elderly in retirement.
But, at the same time, just as we won't rule out raising the retirement age or rule out other ideas, we think we need fairly to let people come forward and put their ideas on the table.
Senator Moynihan, by the way, has made an argument about how you can do some portion of privatization that holds up as a coherent plan. It may not necessarily be the best way to approach the plan, but there are ways in which you can factor into a solution some aspect of that in ways that are certainly coherent.
Q Mike, what's the reaction to Butler's report that they found mustard gas in some --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we are going to very carefully assess Chairman Butler's report. There have been reports already made to the U.N. Security Council that have been subject of discussions there. But this is one more reminder of the need to be very vigilant when it comes to assessing the current performance of the government of Iraq with respect to its obligations under U.N. Security Council resolutions, and one more reminder of why the U.N. Special Commission needs the kind of access for its inspectors to do the work necessary to determine what the past history and current potential of programs of weapons of mass destruction are in Iraq.
Q Mike, the British government says -- international pressure on the government of Sudan to allow more relief supplies to be flow in to areas where hundreds of thousands of people are said to be at risk of starvation. Does the President share that concern?
MR. MCCURRY: The President and the United States government is deeply concerned about the prospects of a major famine disaster in Southern Sudan, the consequence of persistent fighting and the unwillingness of the regime in Khartoum to allow those who can make humanitarian relief supplies available, allow them to do the work necessary to bring a relief to those who are suffering.
Until only very recently, the government in Khartoum was blocking humanitarian relief flights from landing. I think in part they claimed that was because of the ongoing fighting there, but that is, we believe, not a realistic or honest appraisal of what is needed in order to address the prospects for a humanitarian disaster there.
We are working, and will work, and be in contact with the U.N. World Food Program to determine what the requirements are for disaster relief and see what kind of assistance the United Sates government can make available. And we certainly will call upon the government in Sudan to make more accessible the routes necessary for those who want solely to bring humanitarian relief to those who might otherwise perish.
Q What do you say to those critics of NATO expansion who argue that the only reason the President and those members of Congress who support NATO expansion are involved in this is for domestic political reasons, at the expense of real serious national security concerns?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, that's a short-sighted argument if you think of the support within the Alliance itself. Sixteen countries have come together now and said in the interest of peace and security in Europe, we need to take this important step to expand that Alliance; in the interest of a peaceful, undivided Europe and the future of a continent that has seen too much war in the 20th century, for the 21st century we need to think about how to modernize that most valuable treaty alliance that we have ever undertaken as a people. All of the reasons that we've set forward and made clear that it is in the interest of all the people of the United States to pursue this type of security arrangement with the three new countries who are about to become members of NATO.
And it is certainly true that this subject is of keen interest and communities here in the United States that have an ethnic identity with these countries -- but in reality, the future of this alliance and the future of the indispensable role the United States in Europe ought to be a source of concern to all Americans.
Q Is the President ready to nominate a new Ambassador of Mexico?
MR. MCCURRY: I can't announce that at this point.
Q You're not denying it's true?
MR. MCCURRY: Check back later with us.
Q Mike, does the White House have any response to the allegations by the noted columnist, Dick Morris, that the administration employed what he called secret police in gathering FBI files, et cetera?
MR. MCCURRY: He has been fulminating for one of the Rupert Murdoch publications somewhere. But that is a matter that I think has been thoroughly reviewed by some combination of congressional committees and special prosecutors and others. And if there were any way, shape or form that that bizarre idea had a shred of reality to it, it would have been uncovered long ago by someone else.
Q Have you heard anything about the idea of moving Bill Richardson to Energy, to make him Secretary of Energy?
MR. MCCURRY: Have I heard anything about it?
MR. MCCURRY: I've heard from time to time people talk about what a wonderful guy Bill Richardson is and how talented he is and how he's capable of doing any number of things. I even heard people speculate that someday he would be a great running mate for someone running for President. So you can hear lots of stuff.
Q Have you heard specifically what I asked about?
MR. MCCURRY: You hear lots of stuff, but that's about as much as you can do.
Q Is he in line to be Energy?
MR. MCCURRY: The President has not finished the review process on how to fill the pending nomination.
Q Well, would he go to Energy with Richard Holbrooke?
Q Is he on the list?
MR. MCCURRY: There's just any number of things that you could do, but I haven't heard the President finalize any recommendation for that Cabinet vacancy. And I know the President believes Ambassador Richardson has been doing a superb job at a critical moment in the history of our work at the United Nations, and I know that the Ambassador is fully engaged with that work.
Q Will you say anything about the President's specific objections to the automatic sanctions contained in this religious persecution bill that's being discussed on the Hill?
MR. MCCURRY: I can say both about Wolf-Specter, which is the pending legislation, and more broadly with respect to legislation from Congress that ties the hands of the President when it comes to foreign policy-making, that in so many places, in so many different ways in this world, in order to achieve the outcomes the American people want, we need the flexibility required to conduct our diplomacy in a deaf manner. And to have written in advance the outcomes and the sanctions and the approaches that you will use in your diplomacy by Congress, having Congress, in effect, constituting itself as 535 Secretaries of State is not a good way to conduct the foreign policy of this country.
That's been the view that we've expressed a lot of different ways, a lot of different places. And the President had the opportunity to make the case directly to some leaders from the evangelical community last night -- many of whom agree with that point of view and who are worried, in turn, that some of the specific requirements that Wolf-Specter might put at risk people from minority religious populations in foreign countries that might face even greater persecution as a result of the some of the very tightly drawn restrictions that are in that legislation.
Q Mike, is it still your goal to have news conferences every four to six weeks or so in the second term?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, it's my goal. (Laughter.)
Q Why haven't you met the goal?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm just not as effective in my arguments as I need to be.
Q -- reaction to a couple of things Gingrich said. He said the President was being unpatriotic and undermining the Constitution by criticizing Ken Starr's investigation.
MR. MCCURRY: Look, he said a lot of things and he's been saying the same things for several weeks now. I caught him not too long ago on the Larry King Show saying exactly the same thing, and in one way or another he was, I believe, selling a book not too long ago and making many of the same kinds of comments. But that's got nothing to do with the business that we have to get done here. When he switches out of political mood and comes back and sits down and does the work as Speaker that he needs to do to move the business of the country forward, I think that we find that we can work with him and get things done. And we'll prefer to let him provide his nighttime entertainment to his political audiences without getting too exercised about it.
Q Do you have any strong feelings one way or another about Ken Starr representing Meineke Mufflers or Hughes Aircraft on these cases before the Supreme Court?
MR. MCCURRY: I find it best just not to comment on -- you know, he has to do his work as independent counsel as he sees fit.
The event is starting if any of you are interested in it.
Q On Iraq, do you have any estimate of how much money the U.S. has spent for the latest military buildup in Iraq?
MR. MCCURRY: I do not know. I do not have a budget estimate on that, but that is something I think the Department of Defense has been addressing or may have addressed in one of recent briefings. You might want to check with them.
END 1:46 P.M. EDT