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
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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.”

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