The Republican Obsession With Dismantling Social Security And Medicare
Nancy Altman, founding co-director, Social Security Works
The Republicans are desperate to destroy Social Security and Medicare. These two programs demonstrate government at its best. The federal government runs these two extremely popular programs more efficiently, universally, securely, and effectively than the private sector does with its alternatives — or indeed could, no matter how well those private sector programs were designed.
Because Social Security and Medicare are government programs that work so well, the Republican elite — with its seemingly religious belief that the private sector is always the best — hates them. So obsessed are the Republicans in their desire to eliminate these effective government programs that the very first action that House Republicans took in the new Congress was to adopt a rules package that included a new rule that amounts to a stealth attack on Social Security and Medicare.
The rules package, adopted at the start of every new Congress, sets out how the chamber will operate for the next two years. This year’s package is already infamous for provisions in the initial version that would have gutted the Office of Congressional Ethics — provisions that were ultimately dropped after a massive outcry from the American people. Unnoticed by most was an additional provision, which is one part of the Republican game plan to destroy Social Security and Medicare.
Social Security — the people’s pension — and Medicare — the first step toward universal health insurance for all — do not go through the appropriations process because, as monthly pension payments and medical insurance, they must pay what is owed, not what Congress chooses to spend. If Social Security and Medicare were subject to the whims of every Congress, they would be radically transformed. No one could count on the benefits they had earned. Presumably with that goal in mind, the new rules require the relevant committees to make “recommendations for changes to existing law for moving [unspecified} programs…from mandatory funding to discretionary appropriations, where appropriate.”
Note the vague language. Republican politicians understand how popular Social Security and Medicare are. Yet they desperately want to destroy the programs, which put the lie to their anti-government agenda by illustrating clearly that there are some tasks that government does much better then the private sector.
The solution? Cut and radically transform Social Security and Medicare, but do it in a manner that avoids political accountability. Using changes in the arcane rules of the budget to force through subsequent cuts fits that bill perfectly. By the time the American people realize what’s happening, the rules that usher in the changes are in the past, and those voting for the cuts can claim that they have no choice, for budgetary reasons.
The rule that has been adopted was telegraphed shortly after the election when Representative Tom Price, Chairman of the House Budget Committee and Donald Trump’s nominee to be Secretary of Health and Human Services, proposed changes to the budget rules, which, if enacted, would end Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, as we know them. (As an aside, it is horrifying to know that, if confirmed, Price will be in direct control of Medicare and Medicaid, and will be a trustee of Social Security.)
Not only are today’s Republicans obsessed, they are wily. Price, Speaker Paul Ryan, and their fellow Republicans have, unfortunately, learned from President George W. Bush’s failure to convince the American people to dismantle Social Security. Unpopular as the Bush proposal was, he traveled the country to convince the American people that they should support it.
In stark contrast, today’s Republicans want to avoid political accountability by destroying Social Security and Medicare without leaving clear fingerprints. They favor arcane budget rules and fast-tracked, undemocratic procedures so that the American people don’t know what is happening. We cannot let that happen.
It is essential that an energized electorate with heightened awareness makes noise at every turn. The next four years are perilous ones for Social Security and Medicare. But if they survive the unrelenting attacks, brighter times may well lie ahead. In the last few years, we’ve seen the Democratic Party, led by visionaries including Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, unite around expanding, not cutting Social Security. Meanwhile, Republican politicians and elites have continued to support cutting benefits and ultimately destroying both programs.
Historically, Social Security and Medicare have been winning issues for Democrats. They can be now, as well. In addition to expanding, not cutting Social Security, Democrats should forcefully advocate expanding, not cutting, Medicare. Furthermore, Democrats should challenge Republicans when they claim the programs are in need of “saving.”
Republican claims that they are simply seeking to save Social Security and Medicare is the same Orwellian language used during the Vietnam War, when a military officer claimed that a village had to be destroyed in order to save it. Similarly, when today’s Republicans talk of “saving” Social Security and Medicare, their plans are to destroy both programs.
And when Republicans talk about “fixing” Social Security and Medicare, Democrats should point out that Republicans are using the word “fix” the same way veterinarians do, when they talk about neutering dogs and cats. The reality is that Social Security and Medicare don’t need fixing. They can and should be expanded, but they work fine, having stood the test of time.
And, most assuredly, neither Social Security nor Medicare need saving. Indeed, both programs are solutions to a looming retirement income crisis, a broken health care system, and income and wealth inequality. Expanding them would allow them to be even better solutions to these and other challenges facing the nation.
If Democrats are successful in making the American public aware that the Republicans desire to steal their earned Social Security and Medicare benefits, Social Security and Medicare could well be a potent issue in 2018, when seniors vote in disproportionately large numbers. If, in 2018 and 2020, seniors and others vote for progressives who champion expanding, not cutting, Social Security and Medicare, we will be in a position to expand these vital programs. Moreover, we will have elected champions of the environment, civil and human rights, and so many other important causes that those who support expanding Social Security and Medicare also support.
For that to happen, Democrats must be united in their fight against all Social Security and Medicare cuts and all stealth efforts to accomplish the same result indirectly. The Democratic Party must stand clearly and forcefully in favor of expanding, not cutting, Social Security and Medicare.
If the Democratic Party can draw a clear distinction on this vital issue, it can create a powerful wedge between the Republican elites and their base. If the base catches on and realizes who truly represents their economic interests, the next four years, difficult as they are going to be, will be followed by important progress for many years to come.