GOP’s New Social Security Playbook: Pit The Disabled Against Retirees

Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, meets with reporters on the morning after President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. Boehner announced that ... Speaker of the House John Boehner, R-Ohio, meets with reporters on the morning after President Barack Obama's State of the Union speech, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 21, 2015. Boehner announced that he has asked Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to address Congress on dealing with terrorism, but did not consult the White House on the invitation. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite) MORE LESS
Start your day with TPM.
Sign up for the Morning Memo newsletter

Conservatives have long searched for an effective message against Social Security. Now, they seem to have found a new one to try as they set up a fight over the 80-year-old program in the coming Congress: The disabled are robbing the retired.

Social Security advocates describe it almost invariably as the “divide-and-conquer” strategy: Pit the program’s two funds — the retirement and disability programs — against each other. The disability fund won’t be able to pay its full benefits starting in late 2016, and House Republicans passed a rule earlier this month stating that they won’t allow a transfer of tax revenue from the retirement fund to cover the shortfall, as has been done multiple times on a bipartisan basis, most recently in 1994, unless Social Security’s overall solvency is improved.

Republicans have been clear that they intend to use the need for reallocation as leverage to force a debate about the disability program — and perhaps, some conservatives hope and Democrats warn, Social Security as a whole.

It’s widely acknowledged among Social Security experts and advocates that the disability program is easier to target politically because it needs the revenue infusion and it doesn’t have the built-in political support that the retirement program does. It’s simple math: 48 million people receive retirement benefits versus 11 million receiving disability. People are less likely to balk if the disability fund is the hostage being taken.

The new politics became clear in the way that Republicans talked about the disability program when they explained why they didn’t intend to allow a clean revenue transfer, known as reallocation.

“Social Security retirement funds have been raided far too many times for far too many years,” Rep. Tom Reed (R-NY), who co-sponsored the House rule, said in a statement. “My intention by doing this is to force us to look for a long term solution for SSDI rather than raiding Social Security to bail out a failing federal program. Retired taxpayers who have paid into the system for years deserve no less.”

His co-sponsor, Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX), chairman on the House Ways and Means subcommittee that covers Social Security, echoed that sentiment — and particularly the point about the retirement fund being “raided” to pay for disability insurance. With his position, Johnson has held more than a dozen hearings over the last four years, highlighting and documenting cases of disability fraud, which the program’s supporters contend are overblown.

That established storyline helped legitimize the action that the House took on the first day of the new Congress, as Johnson referred to the disability program as “fraud-plagued.”

“Unfortunately, the President and Democrats support raiding the Social Security retirement program to bail out the disability program,” he said in a statement on the new rule. “This is worse than kicking the can down the road – it will actually make the retirement program worse off, and it does nothing to fix the disability program.”

The program’s supporters said that it’s not difficult to read between the lines.

“It’s a divide-and-conquer strategy. … It’s easy to demonize the DI program,” Nancy Altman, co-director of Social Security Works, told TPM recently. She referenced the conservative attempts in the ’80s and ’90s to push for changes to Social Security by playing the young and still working against the old and retired. But Republicans at the time quickly learned that the elderly are difficult to attack. “Now they’re good ones who are being stolen from by the people who are disabled.”

What Republicans hope to get out of this whole episode remains to be seen. They could set up a situation where the disability program faces a crisis on a regular basis. If that’s the course they take, to keep up the pressure for action on Social Security, having a well-established villain would a political asset. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) implying that half of those on disability “are either anxious or their back hurts” typifies the talking point that’s taking hold.

“Conservatives have shown that they really see 2016 as an opportunity to pit people with disabilities against seniors,” Rebecca Vallas, policy director at the liberal Center for American Progress, told TPM. “The language in the rule is so transparent in what they’re trying to communicate, about how reallocation would be raiding Social Security and hurting seniors.”

Latest DC

Notable Replies

  1. Dear Republicans who might be reading this:

    Can you please tell me why it is that suckling at the teat of people who think Ayn Rand was a genius while harming average Americans is your baseline for passing legislation? Don’t talk about budgets and deficits and such because we have already come to the conclusion that running huge deficits is fine when you folks are in the White House. If it is money, I guarantee you, wholeheartedly, that I can find the money in the budget to forego having to cut Social Security.

    Let’s see:

    1. Bloated Pentagon budget is the first place to look. Plenty to cut there.

    2. The tax structure that favors the rich and corporations.

    3. Means testing for farm subsidies. The wealthy need no subsidies, if they do, they should perhaps go into another business that actually makes money.

    There you go.

  2. “The disabled are robbing the retired”

    Very compassionate.

    Of course military spending is robbing both.

  3. So pitting the needy against the needy is their new strategy. It really does show the level of compassion, concern and caring they have for Americans in need. They see them as nothing but tools to be used to achieving their goals. How pathetic they are.

  4. Course these disabled folks paid into the system, fraud is less than 1 percent, and when these 64 yr olds on SSDI age to 65, their benefits now become SS…thus cutting a disabled person by 20 percent means cutting their SS forever by 20 percent. Should they eat or pay for their meds?

    The compassion for our neediest people is once again missing in the GOP mind and pretending to protect seniors is merely that–a pretense. Can the Dems stand up to this blackmail?

  5. Avatar for gr gr says:

    The late Ted Kennedy asked: “Where does the greed stop?”

    I would add: Where does the cruelty end? A Randian world view is 180 degrees from that of a country that professes to be 77% Christian and presumably holds a world view of kindness and charity toward the less fortunate.

    I know one person on SS disability. She became essentially unemployable as a result of disease and no fault of her own After deduction for Medicare, she receives a little more than $700 per month. I would be shocked if she was not suicidal. I would be.

    If there is an afterlife, the GOP and their representatives will spend eternity at the 9th Ring of the Inferno where the cruelest of those who abuse public office go.

    Indeed, where does the cruelty end?

Continue the discussion at

85 more replies


Avatar for doremus_jessup Avatar for ajm Avatar for slbinva Avatar for josephebacon Avatar for silas1898 Avatar for brooklyndweller Avatar for matthew1961 Avatar for pickwick Avatar for sergeant2 Avatar for sywht Avatar for arrrrrj Avatar for bradbennett Avatar for boscobrown Avatar for dorfmann Avatar for sherlock1 Avatar for gr Avatar for richardnixonhuberthumphrey Avatar for deputydawg Avatar for Snafu Avatar for jaybeeraybee Avatar for hallam Avatar for darrtown Avatar for upstateny13027 Avatar for meta

Continue Discussion
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: