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The 17 felony charges filed recently against Rep. Dan Rostenkowski could do much more damage than just that inflicted on the once-powerful Illinois congressman.

Sadly, this scandal could also inflict some deep perhaps crippling wounds on a particularly sensible reform package he has been pushing.We're referring to his efforts to salvage the ailing Social Security system - efforts that could easily suffer now that he is no longer chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and has lost much of his former clout.

Rostenkowski has been striving to make Social Security solvent over the long term - instead of bankrupt by 2036, as currently foreseen.

His plan would both increase taxes and slow benefit growth - moves that ordinarily would arouse the venom of senior citizen groups. But, significantly, the highly influential American Association of Retired Persons is praising his initiative, though not endorsing its specifics.

Normally, the 33 million-strong AARP is skittish about any tampering with, say, COLAs - cost-of-living adjustments that boost retirement benefits in step with inflation. But the association is not boggling at Rep. Rostenkowski's proposal for, among other things, a one-time COLA trim.

As AARP executive director Horace Deets explains his group's stance, Rostenkowski's plan has the virtue of spreading the burden among beneficiaries, workers and employers as well as across generations.

This is no crude COLA grab to pay for some unrelated program and stave off budget cuts. The goal is to put Social Security itself on a sound footing. The sooner this is done, the less any group will ultimately have to sacrifice.

In addition to reducing the 1995 COLA from 3 percent to 2.5 percent, Rostenkowski's plan would, in brief:

- Modestly reduce the generosity of benefits for average or above-average earners over 50 years.

- Raise the age for retiring with full benefits to 67 by 2016 instead of 2027 as in current law.

- Count 85 percent of benefits, up from 50 percent now, as taxable income for individuals with incomes of over $25,000, couples over $32,000.

- Require new state and local government employees to join Social Security.

- And phase in two payroll-tax increases over five years each, ending in 2024 and 2058.

Because they would be introduced gradually over a long period when the standard of living is expected to keep rising, the higher payroll taxes would still leave workers with higher real incomes than they have now, according to the Ways and Means Committee.

Whatever one thinks of any particular piece of this latest blueprint for repair, responsible citizens of all ages must concede that it makes sense to act now, at manageable cost, rather than allow a serious crisis to loom.

Likewise, whatever one thinks of Rostenkowski himself, his proposals should spur a thorough re-examination of Social Security that ought not to falter just because its main proponent is in big trouble. May some other powerful lawmaker pick up this same banner of reform and carry it proudly and persistently.