In politics, you have your tough choices and your easy ones. Most politicians prefer the path of least resistance.

But after the midyear elections are over and Congress gets down to business in 1999, a necessary but tough choice is waiting for members: whether to raise the age at which Americans begin collecting Social Security.Washington thinks it has found an easy way out of the Social Security dilemma. Privatization is the new buzzword on Capitol Hill, with at least a half-dozen plans on the table that provide for some type of private investment of Social Security funds.

Lawmakers want to pay for this with the federal budget surplus. Economists are predicting a budget surplus as far as the eye can see - more than a trillion dollars over the next decade, or the next five years, depending on whom you ask. Using some of that surplus to shore up Social Security seems like an easy way around a thorny prob-lem.

Hold it.

The same economists who now tell us what kind of surplus to expect were predicting deficits "as far as the eye can see" just a few years ago. Yet they're asking us once again to trust their budget crunching, when what it really amounts to is guesswork. Maybe we are entering an age of budgetary surplus. Then again, a deep recession would immediately lay waste to the optimistic forecasts we're hearing. And if Wall Street suddenly takes a dive, you can bet that your local congressman won't be talking much longer about privatizing the Social Security trust fund.

But there are some things about which we don't have to guess. Namely, the gradual bankruptcy of Social Security unless changes are made before the baby boom generation starts retiring in the next decade. And the only way to ensure the program's long-term solvency is to demand sacrifice of beneficiaries.

"It's not as if the money is going to come down from heaven," said Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute. "Someone has to make a sacrifice."

Which brings us back to the retirement age. A growing chorus of experts think the most common-sense way to help save the program is to gradually raise the age at which people become eligible for benefits.

"Raising the retirement age seems like a natural thing to do, because life spans in the United States have increased a great deal since Social Security was enacted," Burtless told our associate Aaron Karp.

When Social Security was created in the 1930s, life expectancy was a mere 59; these days, the average American can expect to reach 78 years of age. Yet despite this 19-year increase, Social Security retirement age hasn't changed.

People are not just living longer - they're living better. Millions of Americans stay healthy and active well into their 70s, and can still work.

Some changes are, in fact, already under way. A law passed in 1983 will gradually raise the retirement age from 65 to 67 over a 22-year period starting in 2000.

But Burtless and others believe that having a fixed retirement age is unsound policy. They would tie retirement age to life expectancy. Burtless proposes a plan whereby retirement age would increase by four months every time life expectancy increases by a year.

That promises to be a tough sell on Capitol Hill, where the only Social Security solutions that aren't in vogue are the tough ones.

Under the dome - The House of Representatives narrowly avoided extreme embarrassment last week when it decided to spare the job of Lawrence Noble.

You haven't heard of Noble? He's the general counsel for the Federal Election Commission, the toothless agency that's supposed to keep politicians honest in their fund-raising. Noble angered congressional Republicans last year by aggressively enforcing the campaign finance laws and investigating GOP-aligned nonprofit groups that were skirting the rules.

Rep. Bob Livingston, R-La., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, tried to retaliate by adding language to a bill that would have imposed four-year terms for the FEC's general counsel.

Once Livingston's ploy was discovered, the congressman withdrew the language. Now all Congress needs to do is pass campaign finance reform and the current session won't be a total waste of time.

United Feature Syndicate