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THE COUNTRY'S RETIREMENT system will enter unknown territory if Congress approves comprehensive Social Security reform legislation.

Employers can-and must-help chart the way.

The country has never gone through a massive overhaul of Social Security before, but the fact that the system-which has been in place for more than six decades-demands reform is beyond question. The Social Security system was intended to provide supplemental retirement income, but it has become the primary-or only-source of old-age funds for too many Americans. When Baby Boomers begin retiring early in the next century, the system will experience severe financial strains its creators could not have foreseen in the 1930s.

But with myriad types and degrees of reform being bandied about in Congress, it is imperative that employers make their concerns known, and soon. Social Security reform isn't going to happen in a vacuum. Any changes made to a public-sector program will have profound ramifications for private-sector pension plans.

The ERISA Industry Committee accordingly deserves praise for its recent report, entitled "The Vital Connection." It provides employers with a description of the major reform initiatives Congress is likely to consider and spells out the potential pluses and minuses to employers of each. The study does not, however, endorse a particular reform.

That's where individual employers come in. Any reform-such as an increase in the age of Social Security eligibility, or a cut in guaranteed benefits or allocating some of a worker's Social Security contribution to an individual savings account-is going to have an impact on employer-provided retirement benefits. Employees facing a cut in Social Security benefits, for example, might demand creation of defined benefit plans. The creation of individual retirement savings accounts funded by Social Security contributions would raise countless questions about administrative procedures and fiduciary liability.

Because employers ultimately could bear the brunt of reform's consequences, they must make their concerns known. Poorly designed and poorly executed reforms might save the Social Security system but destroy the employer-sponsored retirement system that has served millions of American workers so well.

We've long held that the Social Security system needs to be put on a new course to best serve the interests of the nation's employers and employees alike. If employers insist on being included in the upcoming congressional debate, they can help provide the map for charting that new course. Otherwise, they may find themselves in unfriendly waters.