Decades after Social Security and Medicare were enacted, we once again find ourselves defending both programs from conservative assault. This time, the standoff over the federal debt ceiling — manufactured by House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and his caucus — has raised the specter of cuts to seniors’ earned benefits. Even though Republicans appeared to agree during the State of the Union that cuts are off the table, the debt ceiling debate has allowed some ill-advised ideas for “entitlement reform” to bubble back up to the surface in Congress.
Of course, it makes little sense to conflate seniors’ earned benefits with the debt ceiling. Social Security and Medicare Part A are fully self-funded by American workers and do not contribute a penny to the debt. In fact, the main driver of federal debt is ‘tax expenditures’ — windfalls for the wealthy and profitable corporations like the 2017 tax cuts and other expenditures under the previous administration, which account for nearly 25% of the entire national debt. But we don’t hear Republicans clamoring to repeal those tax cuts. In fact, they want to make them permanent.
Republicans in both the House and Senate have spent the past year pushing proposals that ultimately could undermine Americans’ earned benefits. These include raising the full retirement age for Social Security (a lifetime benefit cut of up to 23%), means testing benefits (which could impact seniors earning as little as $49,000 a year), cutting cost-of-living adjustments, and gambling some of the trust fund on Wall Street.
Let’s not forget Senator Rick Scott’s (R-Fla.) proposal during the 2022 campaign to subject Social Security and Medicare to an up-or-down vote every five years — or Senator Ron Johnson’s (R-Wis.) scheme to subject seniors’ earned benefits to the mercy of the annual budgeting process. Meanwhile, the GOP’s new Fair Tax Act would eliminate the payroll taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare. These are not genuine proposals to “save” these programs; they are existential threats.
There is no doubt that the finances of Social Security and Medicare need shoring up. The Social Security and Medicare Part A trust funds are projected to become depleted by 2035 and 2028, respectively, absent congressional action. But most Republican proposals to improve solvency include benefit cuts, while Democrats have introduced legislation to expand benefits and increase revenue by adjusting the payroll wage cap. (This month, millionaires will stop paying into Social Security for the rest of the calendar year while the rest of us continue to contribute.)
One of the more problematic GOP proposals is the TRUST Act, which would create special committees to “rescue” Social Security and Medicare. Legislation crafted by these committees could then be fast-tracked through Congress, making it harder for the public to learn what’s in the bill or to give input before it is approved. In short, the TRUST Act is a vehicle for expediting changes to these vital programs while providing political cover for cutting benefits.
Of course, conservatives are far too cagey to use the word “cuts” when pitching their schemes for Social Security and Medicare. They know both programs are incredibly popular with the public and that Americans don’t want their earned benefits slashed. But Republicans who reject even the most common sense revenue increases cannot achieve their austere goals without cutting benefits.
Some conservatives claim that they won’t touch Social Security or Medicare for current beneficiaries. What they’re really saying is that baby boomers might be safe, but Gen Z, millennials, and Generation X may see their benefits cut, even though younger adults will rely on Social Security and Medicare even more than their parents and grandparents do. To further drive a wedge between the older and younger generations, conservatives claim that Social Security is a bad deal for millennials because — who knows? — Social Security might not even be there when they retire. It certainly won’t be without public confidence in the intergenerational compact that has worked so successfully since 1935.
The three of us have been around long enough to remember that most of these conservative ploys are not new. We remember the CATO institute’s 1983 strategy to “divide the coalition” of younger and older worker Americans supporting Social Security. We remember Newt Gingrich’s hoping in 1995 that Medicare “withers and dies on the vine.” We remember George W. Bush’s failed campaign to privatize Social Security in 2005 — and 2012 vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan’s obsession with ending traditional Medicare by turning it into a voucher system. We remember Republicans calling for “entitlement reform” after the inequitable Trump/GOP tax cuts of 2017. The fact that these proposals failed in the past doesn’t make them any less dangerous today. At the very least, they undermine public confidence that Social Security and Medicare will endure.
During President Biden’s State of the Union address, he challenged all members of Congress to “stand up for seniors,” which they did — Republican and Democrats alike. Is this a sign of bipartisan consensus to do what’s right for seniors? We hope so. But, if not, President Biden and Democratic leadership have vowed to serve as a firewall against cuts to these programs, and we will fight alongside them every step of the way. Americans have paid into Social Security and Medicare their entire working lives. They need to know that Congress won’t welch on its end of the deal. Let’s close the door once and for all on proposals demanding that seniors bear the burden of keeping Social Security and Medicare solvent.
Former Sen.Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is founder of the Harkin Institute at Drake University and chair of the advisory board of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. Former Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) is a member of the National Committee’s advisory board. Max Richtman is President and CEO.