WASHINGTON -- A conservative think tank has an idea that would give lawmakers credit for propping up Social Security, without taking any of the painful measures that could come back to haunt them at election time.
The idea, from the Heritage Foundation, is simple: Codify into law that all working Americans who have paid enough into the system to earn full benefits have an irrevocable right to receive their Social Security benefits when they retire.
In other words, workers would "own" their Social Security benefits in the same way they own money they have set aside in individual retirement accounts or other investments.
This proposal is counter to a 1960 U.S. Supreme Court decision that held Americans have no explicit property right to Social Security. To endow property rights on the Social Security system "would deprive it of the flexibility and boldness in adjustment to ever-changing conditions which it demands," the court said at the time.
The high court did, however, note the Social Security Act creating the program safeguarded it from "arbitrary governmental action."
This "property right" inherent in the Heritage Foundation's proposal also would let participants bequeath their Social Security benefits to their heirs, just as they may their other investments.
The proposal is only the first step in the Washington-based Heritage Foundation's plan for comprehensive reform of Social Security. Like other conservative groups, it strongly supports the creation of individual accounts. Indeed, a property right is implicit in individual account proposals.
Among other things, giving beneficiaries an explicit right to their accrued Social Security benefits would let them figure out how much they will receive, and, therefore, how much they will need to save on their own for retirement.
The Social Security system already is required to send every American older than 24 an annual statement of estimated benefits, starting in fiscal 2000.
David C. John, the Heritage Foundation's senior policy analyst for Social Security and author of the proposal, said Americans should receive, instead, an annual legal document spelling out the amount of Social Security taxes they (and their employers) have paid, and the amount of retirement benefits earned to date.
Mr. John also proposes the legal document could include a projection of future Social Security benefits individuals could expect to receive if their income remains the same.
And, individuals would have the right to sue if they don't receive the benefits they are owed.
"There is something for everyone in it, and we are hoping that it will allow both sides to find common ground," Mr. John said.
Both liberals and conservatives would find the proposal appealing because it "would provide protection for people who are living on Social Security and not much else," said Mr. John, whose paper was released Dec. 14.
Other Social Security experts, however, are unanimous in their criticism of the Heritage proposal.
For one thing, they say it would hamstring lawmakers in their efforts to fix the financially strapped system by automatically ruling out any proposals to change the benefits formula or cut benefits.
For another, forcing a virtually bankrupt system to pay out accrued benefits is tantamount to an enormous tax increase on future generations, they say.
"We can't lock them into place because the current levels are unaffordable," commented Laurence J. Kotlikoff, a Boston University economist. "These piecemeal proposals are half-baked, half mesures," said Mr. Kotlikoff, who is helping the Bank of England in London develop ways to reform the British social security system.
Sylvester J. Schieber, director of research at Watson Wyatt Worldwide in Bethesda, Md., agrees. "The problem with an unfunded retirement program is that my benefit depends on my children and my grandchildren paying a tax," he said.
At the same time, liberals such as Robert M. Ball, former Social Security administrator and founder of the National Academy of Social Insurance, find the Heritage Foundation idea repugnant because it would prevent future generations from tinkering with the system if required.
"Conditions change. You should not guarantee everything absolutely and constitutionally," Mr. Ball stated.
Moreover, the Heritage Foundation proposal is impractical because it does not consider that Social Security benefits are based upon average lifetime earnings. A legal promise to pay all benefits accrued thus far, without taking into account possible future earnings, would result in large cutbacks of benefits for many people, some experts say.
"To measure the actuarial value of benefits accrued to date is not always definable," said Robert Myers, chief actuary of the Social Security system between 1947 and 1970, and deputy Social Security commissioner in the early 1980s.