The latest New York Times/Siena College poll asked respondents about the major issues facing the country. The volunteered responses highlighted familiar problems and challenges: the economy, inflation, the health of our democracy, abortion rights and so on. The future of programs such as Social Security and Medicare did not make the list.
That might be a mistake.
President Joe Biden recently warned the public that Social Security and Medicare would end up on “the chopping block” if Republicans make gains in this year’s midterm elections, and as regular readers know, plenty of prominent GOP voices — from Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson to New Hampshire’s Don Bolduc to Rep. Buddy Carter of Georgia — have bolstered Biden’s claims.
It was against this backdrop that a member of the House Republican leadership broached the same subject yesterday morning. Bloomberg reported:
Representative Steve Scalise, the number two House Republican, defended his party’s approach to Medicare and Social Security, which has become a campaign issue ahead of US midterm elections in November. It’s a mis-characterization to say the GOP plans to “cut” the programs, Scalise said on “Fox News Sunday.”
As part of the on-air appearance, host Shannon Bream asked the Louisiana congressman about the proposed budget plan from the Republican Study Committee, which Scalise is a member of. As Politico noted, the plan, among other things, included proposals for “raising the eligibility ages for each program, along with withholding payments for individuals who retire early or had a certain income, and privatized funding for Social Security to lower income taxes.”
Yesterday was an opportunity for Scalise to distance himself from the document and its recommendations. He did largely the opposite. “That budget talks about shoring up and strengthening Social Security. That’s not ‘cutting’ Social Security,” the House minority whip said. He added, “We’ve broad forward legislation to stave off cuts to Medicare. We want to stave off cuts to Social Security. Democrats haven’t supported any of that. They want the programs to go bankrupt.”
For now, let’s put aside the question of which party cared more about the future of Social Security — a debate Republicans obviously can’t win. Let’s instead consider the two key elements of the broader debate.
The first is the nature of the GOP pitch: Republicans don’t intend to “cut” Social Security and Medicare, Scalise argued, so much as the party intends to “shore up” the programs’ finances. At first blush, that might sound worthwhile, but as the Bloomberg report added, “To avoid insolvency in the programs, spending would need to be cut, revenue raised or some combination of the two.”
Quite right. Indeed, the arithmetic is stubborn: If Republicans intend to “strengthen” the social insurance programs — sometimes referred to as “entitlements” — Social Security and Medicare would need to either spend less money, take in more money, or some combination of the two.
GOP officials aren’t about to raise taxes anytime soon, so that necessarily means spending less on benefits that Americans currently enjoy. Scalise doesn’t want that to be seen as a “cut.” I have a hunch those who are set to receive benefits that Republicans intend to take away might disagree.
But the other angle to this that’s worth keeping in mind is that Republicans not only want to impose changes on Social Security and Medicare, they also have a plan to make these changes happen. Bloomberg Government published a striking report last week, sketching out GOP officials’ plans to work around a veto threat and force President Joe Biden to accept cuts to the popular social insurance programs.
Social Security and Medicare eligibility changes, spending caps, and safety-net work requirements are among the top priorities for key House Republicans who want to use next year’s debt-limit deadline to extract concessions from Democrats. The four Republicans interested in serving as House Budget Committee chairman in the next Congress said in interviews that next year’s deadline to raise or suspend the debt ceiling is a point of leverage if their party can win control of the House in the November midterm elections.
As we discussed last week, the extortion plan is profoundly dangerous, but likely to be implemented anyway: If voters put Republicans in the majority, they’ll demand changes to Social Security and Medicare, and if the White House balks, GOP lawmakers will simply refuse to raise the debt ceiling.
In other words, Republicans are prepared to crash the economy and trash the full faith and credit of the United States in order to achieve unpopular and regressive cuts that the public doesn’t want. It's intended to create a hostage crisis in which GOP lawmakers threaten to harm Americans on purpose unless Democrats agree to pay their ransom.
House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said via Twitter last week, “[I]t’s shameful that House Republicans are once again threatening to hold the debt limit hostage and risking the U.S. economy in order to slash Medicare and Social Security programs.”
With 22 days remaining before Election Day, I realize this isn’t much of a campaign issue. I’m less sure why this isn’t much of a campaign issue.