The MAGA faction of the House Republican Conference is once again threatening to disrupt the basic functioning of government to push an unpopular agenda. Last spring, they brought the nation to the brink of default. Now, the House Freedom Caucus is refusing to keep the government from shutting down in September unless a set of extreme demands are met. In both cases, they have displayed a callous disregard for the effect of these machinations on everyday Americans who depend on the smooth operation of government — including, and especially, our nation’s seniors.
While the possibility of a government shutdown does not pose as serious a threat to Social Security and Medicare as the averted federal default would have, it is of serious concern to seniors and their advocates. Most Social Security payments likely would continue to go out because the process is largely automated. But, depending on how long a shutdown might last, customer service for Social Security claimants and beneficiaries could be significantly disrupted.
Customer service at the beleaguered Social Security Administration (SSA) is already suffering from chronic underfunding by Congress. In the event of a shutdown, SSA employees would be forced to continue working (without being paid until the shutdown ended) and they’d be limited to performing only their most basic work functions. Non-automated and non-exempted SSA operations would come to a screeching halt. Current work backlogs would begin to grow again. If that happens, seniors hoping to submit new Social Security claims, replace Social Security cards, or report a change in status may experience delays until the shutdown ends.
We’re worried that — after more than a decade of Tea Party-initiated budget cuts — the negative impacts on SSA and its customers will not end once the government has resumed operations. The current appropriations levels being considered for the new fiscal year will leave SSA unable to even “tread water” in terms of customer service. In recent years, claimants have experienced field office closures, interminable wait times on hold on the SSA’s 800-phone line, and delays of more than a year for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) appeals hearings. In 2017, Over 10,000 people died awaiting adjudication of their SSDI claims. The trend of Congress’ underfunding this agency looks to continue — and service will continue to deteriorate.
Again, the level of harm to seniors from a government shutdown really depends on how long it lasts. The deeper problem is the willingness of MAGA Republicans to hold the federal government hostage to their unreasonable demands — for the second time in a year. They risked a federal default last spring in order to extort deep cuts in domestic spending that the majority of Americans do not support.
In June, the White House and Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) were able to reach a last-minute deal to lift the debt limit and avert a default. But the deal effectively keeps non-defense spending flat, with funding for FY 2024 failing to keep up with inflation. Unfortunately, many House Republicans are ignoring even that miserly deal. The GOP-controlled House appropriations committees are marking up spending bills at FY 2022 levels, which is considerably lower than in the debt limit agreement.
MAGA Republicans in the House do not seem to care what impact a shutdown would have on everyday Americans. In fact, many MAGA House members seem to relish the prospect of throwing sand in the gears of the federal government. The Freedom Caucus refuses to vote to keep the government open unless their egregious demands are met, demands which are publicly unpopular. These include new laws to address the supposed “weaponization” of government and the revocation of so-called “woke” policies at the Pentagon.
These issues are not only bogus; they have little to do with serious spending policy. One former GOP Senate aide told The Hill that the Freedom Caucus demands are “fundamentally ridiculous.” And yet their agenda to shut down the government can have real consequences for real people, including society’s most vulnerable.
What’s more, many of these same MAGA Republicans have proposed to cut and privatize Social Security — if not for today’s seniors than for their kids and grandchildren. The 2023 House Republican Study Committee budget blueprint called for raising the retirement age to 69 (despite the fact that many older Americans simply cannot work that long); adopting a miserly COLA formula; and means testing benefits, which would cut deep into the heart of the middle class.
So-called “fiscal hawks,” who have no problem making the Trump/GOP tax cuts for the wealthy and big corporations permanent, continue to conflate Social Security with the debt. The program is self-funded by workers’ payroll contributions and does not contribute to the debt. Even Ronald Reagan said, “Social Security has nothing to do with the deficit.”
As seniors’ advocates, we do not believe that older Americans should be shortchanged in the federal budget process. At the end of the day, government spending is a moral issue — revealing society’s priorities. After a lifetime of contributing to this county in innumerable ways — and with the cost of growing old escalating every year — our seniors deserve to be a priority. And they shouldn’t have to worry about their earned benefits because MAGA House members once again are willing the hold the government hostage to their extremist aims.
On Thursday, The White House urged Congress to adopt a short-term measure to fund the federal government, allowing more time to craft a spending deal and avert a shutdown. Congress should heed the president’s request.
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the nonprofit National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. He is former staff director of the U.S. Senate Special Committee on Aging.