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Political buzz from Washington

Issue: "Trading places," June 30, 2001

U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill lunched with about 50 financial services executives and policy experts in New York and made the case that "reforming Social Security is the most significant public-policy issue we will face in the next 20 years" and why Wall Street should be involved in the debate ... Without notes, O'Neill explained that the Social Security Trust Fund is a Washington-invented fiction: "As the managing trustee of Social Security, I must tell you we have no assets in the trust fund. We only have promises.... If we did in the private sector what we have done as a society [with people's retirement money], we would all be in jail" ... The key to reform, O'Neill insisted, is creating personal retirement accounts in which workers can experience the "magic" of compound interest and create "assets they own" and "can pass on to their children" ... The real question isn't whether O'Neill is on board, but whether he can persuade financial executives to actively engage in supporting personal retirement accounts. As summer officially begins and gas prices climb in some places past $2 a gallon, congressional Democrats are attacking President Bush for not feeling people's pain, hoping their attacks will continue to drive down Bush's poll numbers ... Some conservative strategists in Washington believe the president should call on Congress to suspend the federal excise tax of 18.3 cents on every gallon of gas for the next six months or so ... Bush could also call on the nation's governors to suspend their state sales taxes on gasoline, which average about 19 cents per gallon ... Combined, federal and state gas taxes add up to an average $5.66 per fill-up ... "Republicans ought to [cut gas taxes] not only because it's good policy and good politics, but because it reminds people that one of the reasons that gas prices are high is because of taxes," says Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson recently decided to rename the clunky sounding Health Care Financing Administration, whose acronym HCFA is pronounced "Hick-fah" in Washington-speak ... HCFA is responsible for administering Medicare and Medicaid for some 73 million Americans, and its annual budget of $339.4 billion is more than the entire gross domestic product of many European countries, including Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland ... "How could you ever like something called HCFA?" Thompson told reporters ... Thompson's first choice to rename the crown jewel in the federal welfare state? "Medicare and Medicaid Administration," but that was quickly scuttled when some aides to Thompson realized the new acronym would be "MAMA" ... So he officially unveiled the "Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services" ... Now the snickering buzz in Washington is that Thompson has actually renamed the world's largest social services agency CMMS, or "Commies." New Democrats are growing concerned that Old Democrats like House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt and Sen. Ted Kennedy could pull the party back to the left and harm efforts once again to become the majority party ... The new chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council, Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), is inviting New Democrat elected officials and community leaders to Indianapolis July 15-17 for a series of political and policy strategy sessions ... He is also spreading the word through the DLC ranks that he will not be a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004 ... Does that clear the way for DLCers Sen. John Breaux of Louisiana or Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut to run for president?... It's too soon to tell, especially since former Vice President Gore has not yet made his intentions known.

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