“Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset every five years,” President Joe Biden said at Tuesday’s State of the Union.
Cue the Republican eruption. Sen. Mike Lee (R-UT) — who once said “It will be my objective to phase out Social Security. To pull it up by the roots, and get rid of it” — sat with his mouth agape in feigned incredulity. As they yelled “no!” and “liar!” Biden took the protestations as their promise not to demand cuts to the programs in exchange for averting default on the country’s debt.
“So as we all apparently agree — Social Security and Medicare are off the books now,” he said to loud applause, giving a thumbs up. “Alright — we’ve got unanimity!”
The exchange prompted a flurry of pieces capturing recent statements from Republicans, including Sens. Ron Johnson (R-WI) and Rick Scott (R-FL), and plans, including Scott’s while he was chair of the National Republican Senate Committee and that of the House Republican Study Committee, all of which mention proposed cuts to the programs or putting them on the path toward being ended altogether.
While these episodes prove easy, recent counterpoints to Republican yowls that they’ve never dreamed of touching the programs, they’re largely superfluous. Cutting Medicare and Social Security has been a key policy ambition of the Republican Party for decades. Due to the popularity of both programs, they’ve often cloaked their ambitions in different ways: objecting to the harsh “cut” in favor of the friendlier “reform” or “strengthen,” and ginning up panic that the programs are in crisis anyway.
This antagonism toward Medicare — the government’s national health insurance program for people older than 65 and for some younger people with disabilities — and Social Security — a social insurance program where workers and employers pay a payroll tax that funds benefits for retirees and those with disabilities — stretches back decades. But even the recent history of the early 21st century is replete with dustups where Republicans sought to make good on this long-term aim.
George W. Bush’s Failed Crusade
Fresh off winning the White House and both chambers of Congress in the 2004 election, President George W. Bush declared that his victory had given him immense “political capital” that he intended to use to partially privatize Social Security.
“I remember it very well — we were taken off guard, frankly, by how much of a priority he put on it,” Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, told TPM. He recalled sitting in a conference room, watching Bush address reporters just after his win, realizing that the organization would have to mount a full-scale response.
Bush included the idea in his 2005 State of the Union — “As we fix Social Security, we also have the responsibility to make the system a better deal for younger workers. And the best way to reach that goal is through voluntary personal retirement accounts” — and set off to barnstorm around the country.
While members of Congress gradually sorted out their positions on Bush’s proposal, it inspired immediate pushback from experts who recognized it as the culmination of a decades-long conservative crusade to end Social Security as we know it.
“Social Security has served the nation well for 70 years and will continue to do so unless ideologues ruin it in the name of ‘fixing’ it,” Northwestern University history professors William Heyck and Michael Sherry wrote at the time. “Not only does Social Security not need the radical changes proposed by the Bush administration, those ‘reforms’ will destroy the principles upon which this admirable system of social insurance was founded.”
“Apart from the facts that investment in the stock market is always risky and that workers can set up private investment accounts with their own money now, the personal account proposal for diverting Social Security taxes would reduce benefit payments for the great majority,” they added.
By the summer, Bush’s plan was dying a slow, agonizing death as it was subjected to greater scrutiny (thanks, in part, to the website on which you are reading this). Centrist Democrats and some Republicans began to balk. Critics pointed out that Bush’s plans to privatize the program would leave people’s retirement accounts up to the whims of the market, and that there would be enormous, outstanding issues with addressing the solvency of the program.
Bush’s approval ratings took a thwack, and the plan became so toxic that it never even got a vote either in the House or the Senate. It gave congressional Democrats a rallying point, and helped bring them back from the political wilderness to retake both chambers in the 2006 midterms — the first time either party had done so since 1994.
“That was the last major effort to privatize the program,” Richtman said.
Obama’s Debt Default Nightmare
The programs came under threat in a big way in 2011, when President Barack Obama was haggling with House Republicans who (sound familiar?) threatened to refuse to raise the debt ceiling unless Obama gave them some political concessions. This negotiation has become infamous in Obama-Biden circles, and connects directly to the Biden administration’s refusal to negotiate with Republicans in the present day.
Then, Obama pitched reductions in Medicare spending and a change to how inflation is measured in determining Social Security payouts — which ultimately would have translated into lower payments over time.
“We had 50 people carrying signs of what would happen in each state if the cost of living adjustment was reduced and what that would mean for beneficiaries over time,” Richtman said. “We also had millions of petitions in boxes, which we tried to get onto the White House grounds. They said no.”
At the time, Democrats were more willing than they are today to cooperate with Republicans’ austerity demands, their sporadic insistence that the deficit must be reduced. But even that argument is conflating two different things: Social Security cannot contribute to the deficit, because the program is legally not allowed to borrow money. Should its revenues and trust fund fall short, its benefits would have to be cut.
Obama was also dealing with the up-and-coming Republican “young guns,” including Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI), the fresh-faced, genteel, fiscally conservative rising star of the party who was hell-bent on ending traditional Medicare. Instead, he wanted to introduce a voucher program that would give seniors coupons to buy their own health insurance — a plan critics denounced as trying to decimate the purpose of the program, and saddling low-income seniors with hugely increased costs.
Social Security ultimately escaped the 2011 standoff unscathed, as Republicans were unwilling to sign off on tax increases commensurate with the cuts to the social safety net programs. Medicare suffered an $11 billion cut a couple years later, a ramification of the deal Obama made with the House Republicans.
Obama re-upped some of these cuts in his later budget proposals. Republicans rejected them — because they were too small.
“I don’t know if I would say that he cracked the door on entitlement reform,” Ryan said in 2013. “He has proposed to change a statistic, which saves money. That is really not entitlement reform.”
“It is nowhere near what we need to do,” added then-Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-GA).
Trump Sweeps In With A Republican Trifecta
Candidate Trump set himself apart from the 2016 field by promising not to cut Medicare and Social Security.
That Republican pet issue was largely relegated to the back burner while Trump and his Republicans made a serious (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act, and Trump himself usually focused on issues more in the “culture war” silo.
“He’s clearly not Newt Gingrich, clearly not George W. Bush,” Timothy McBride, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert on Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, told TPM of Trump’s stance on cutting the programs. “I could believe that George Bush thought it was a good idea — he’s a patrician, fiscally conservative Republican with an MBA. And Ronald Reagan was clearly anti-government. But Trump didn’t have an ideological stake in this case.”
The issue still bubbled up, but to a smaller degree. Some Republicans, including Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and then-Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) told various news outlets that they supported cuts to the programs while flailing for some policy stance that they could spin as “fiscally conservative” in light of the ballooning deficit from the 2017 Trump tax cuts.
Trump’s budget proposals — largely messaging documents from the White House to convey the President’s priorities — included cuts to Medicare and Social Security Disability Insurance. He also had a persistent fixation on cutting the payroll tax that funds Social Security, though companies largely did not bite on his directive to defer collection of the tax in 2020.
Now, Republicans continue to support cuts to Medicare and Social Security — just as they virtually always have. Carrying out the cuts remains politically radioactive, and exceedingly difficult to pull off.
But it doesn’t mean they won’t keep trying.