First, the good news. Even if the government shuts down at the end of this week because of House Republican intransigence, Social Security benefits will continue to be paid and customer service for retirees should not get significantly worse – in the short term, anyway. Medicare benefits would not be affected, either — but beneficiaries would be unable to obtain replacement Medicare cards during a shutdown. (Social Security cards would still be available, but benefit verifications will not.)
Now, the bad news. The impending shutdown is symptomatic of a disorder in Congress that seniors should care about: MAGA hardliners once again gumming up the works of a government which best serves the public when operating smoothly, without needless disruptions. (See last spring’s default crisis, promulgated by the House GOP.) Many of these are the same House Republicans who have proposed to cut Social Security. The MAGA faction also wants to slash the already underfunded Social Security Administration’s (SSA) budget by 8%, which could have devastating effects on customer service.
Fortunately, Social Security benefits would continue to be paid during a shutdown because they are considered by law to be mandatory spending. (It should be noted that GOP Senator Ron Johnson proposed in 2022 that Social Security and Medicare no longer be considered mandatory.) Any Social Security Administration employees with a role in administering Social Security benefits are considered “essential personnel” and would not be furloughed during a shutdown. But these workers will not be paid until the shutdown is over. Some 8,500 of SSA’s 62,000 employeeswould be furloughed as “non-essential,” according to NCPSSM’s senior Social Security analyst, Maria Freese.
“Anything that slows the process down, and makes it more challenging, is something that everybody ought to worry about. This is an agency with over 60,000 employees — none of whom is going to get paid during a shutdown. Yes, the agency will continue to function. But it costs the government money as the agency falls further behind” – Maria Freese, NCPSSM senior Social Security analyst
While retirement benefits should remain largely unscathed, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) determinations could be affected by a shutdown. Kathleen Romig of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities told CBS News that state-level offices that determine eligibility for disability benefits may close, as they have in the past. “Because there are already huge backlogs in SSDI disability decisions, a government shutdown could worsen delays,” Romig said.
The House and Senate are running out of time to pass legislation (known as a “continuing resolution” or CR) to keep the government open past the end of the fiscal year on September 30th. “Sometime between now and the end of the week, the House would have to pass a CR, and there’s no agreement on how to do that,” said Freese. This is largely because MAGA House Republicans have demanded painful spending cuts (along with several spurious and unrelated demands). House Speaker Kevin McCarthy does not have the support within his own caucus to pass a CR, and he has so far been unwilling to work with Democrats to amass enough votes to avoid a shutdown.
Last week, we asked Maria Freese why some House Republicans seem perfectly willing to shut the government down for ideological reasons, regardless of the impact on everyday Americans. “I like to hope that they are simply unaware of the hardships that shutdowns cause to their own constituents, as some Republicans have said publicly that they don’t believe anyone would notice or care if the government closed,” said Freese. ” I believe this kind of cavalier attitude about our government demonstrates a lack of understanding and appreciation for the many services agencies like SSA provide to the average American senior.”