January 10, 2023
Of all the things that Americans voted for in the midterm elections, cutting seniors’ hard-earned benefits wasn’t one of them. In fact, by denying Republicans an anticipated Red Wave, voters largely rejected MAGA-nomics — including more tax cuts for the wealthy and spending cuts for everyone else. Nonetheless, by making concessions to a small faction of MAGA rebels in order to become House Speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has opened the door for cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
One of McCarthy’s most dangerous concessions was agreeing to tie the lifting of the federal debt ceiling to spending cuts, which easily could include Social Security and Medicare. As former U.S. Labor Secretary Robert Reich recently wrote, “For years now, a major goal of the extreme right has been to undermine Social Security and Medicare, the most popular programs in the federal government… The coming fight over raising the debt ceiling seems likely to become the defining battle over the next six to nine months.”
While it’s true that Democrats still hold the White House and the Senate, the president and his party will be under enormous pressure to avoid a federal government default on its financial obligations — and the ensuing economic chaos — if Congress fails to lift the debt ceiling. In 2011, Tea party House members took the country to the brink of default in order to extract concessions on spending from President Obama and congressional Democrats. Democrats resisted the GOP majority’s demands, but the resulting debt ceiling battle resulted in harmful spending caps that hobble Congress to this day.
In addition to linking action on the debt ceiling to spending cuts, McCarthy agreed to new House rules that will make it harder for Congress to raise much-needed revenue or increase funding for vital programs, regardless of need.
Let’s be clear. America’s seniors cannot afford benefit cuts, including raising the eligibility ages for future Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries, which the House Republican Study Committee proposed in its 2022 spending blueprint. (The blueprint also included means testing, which could hurt beneficiaries earning as little as $49,000 a year.) Many older Americans are still struggling in the post-pandemic economy. Some retirees have had to return to work to make ends meet. They need every penny of their earned benefits.
Conservatives sometimes promise not to touch the benefits of current retirees, leaving the door wide open to cutting Social Security for future seniors. But the data suggests that younger adults will rely on Social Security even more for financial survival in retirement. Millennials are projected to receive about $1 million for an average-income single adult and $2 million for a couple over a lifetime. They have a lot to lose if future Social Security benefits are slashed.
Of course, the public is not demanding that Social Security and Medicare be cut. Quite the opposite: both programs remain overwhelmingly popular. A large majority of voters (83 percent) across party lines say they want to see Social Security expanded, not slashed, with the wealthy contributing their fair share in payroll taxes. Meanwhile, 62% of voters say they want Congress to raise the debt ceiling so that the government can meet its existing financial obligations, with no strings attached. Nevertheless, McCarthy has empowered a handful of ultra-MAGA members to dictate policy for the new House majority. One commentator called them political “nihilists” who believe in little more than an atrophied federal government and unfettered market capitalism which leaves working people behind.
It will be up to President Biden and the Democrats to stand firm against cuts to Social Security and Medicare, which they admirably have pledged to do. But they cannot fight this battle alone. Current and future seniors must let their elected representatives know that they have not paid into these programs their entire lives just to see them eroded by the ultra-MAGA wrecking crew.
Max Richtman is president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in Washington, D.C.