EDITORIAL, NYTimes on
the Web, April 24, 2006
George W. Bush's high-handed attitude
toward his own majority in Congress keeps getting worse, and we keep waiting for
the Republicans to notice they are being insulted.
The latest case in point is President Bush's appointment last week of the next
two public trustees for Social Security and Medicare. Normally, those
positions require confirmation by the Senate. But leaders from both
parties had made it clear they objected to the president's choices. Then
the president did an end run, installing his candidates while Congress was in
It's not unheard of for a president to use a recess appointment to overcome
stonewalling from his opposition. But in the past, such maneuvers have
been treated by the White House as emergencies; this one seems to regard them as
Social Security and Medicare are overseen by six trustees, four of them
administration officials. The other two are supposed to represent the
public. The terms of the last two public trustees — Thomas Saving, an
economist at Texas A&M, and John Palmer, former dean of the Maxwell School at
Syracuse — expired last spring. In November, Mr. Bush renominated the same
two men to serve new four-year terms. Senators protested, maintaining that
the point of having public trustees is to ensure that fresh outsiders'
perspectives are represented on the board.
The senators are right, the president is wrong. With the four other
administration trustees, the public trustees approve the assumptions that are
used to project the financial health of Social Security and Medicare, as well as
the text of the programs' annual reports. It sounds like a dry and pro
forma job, but in fact, that information greatly influences policy. As the
baby boom generation ages and as the Bush administration pursues an overall
agenda of privatization, the need for public-interest representation grows only
more acute. To quell politicization, the law wisely requires that the two
public trustees come from different parties, and the Senate has never allowed
any pair to serve repeated terms.
The White House says that it had to resort to recess appointments because it
wanted public trustees in place to sign the 2006 annual reports for Social
Security and Medicare, which were due on April 1. That's ludicrous.
The two reappointed public trustees have not served as such during the past
year, when the reports were being prepared. Their signatures would
therefore be nothing but rubber stamps on administration documents.
It is easy to understand why Mr. Bush would want the two trustees' imprimatur.
His Social Security privatization plan was a colossal flop and the rollout of
his Medicare drug benefit has been the target of widespread criticism. The
public trustees' signatures would magnify any positive spin the reports manage
to put on things.
Congress cannot undo the recess appointments. But the two newly re-upped
public trustees can and should refuse them.