Social Security and Medicare Have Always Been on the Chopping Block
And the new Select Committee on China has its first primetime hearing.
Good afternoon, Press Pass readers. Congress is back in session this week, and there is a lot going on in Washington. Before we dive into today’s edition, could you please do me a favor and share this newsletter with someone whom you think might be interested? An elderly, cable-news-obsessed relative, say. Or a precocious politics junkie teen of your acquaintance. Or just a friend whom you think it might edify (or annoy; I mean, it’s your friend).
Today’s edition is unlocked but you will need to upgrade to Bulwark+ for Thursday’s edition where I plan to take a deeper look into Ron DeSantis’s six years in the House of Representatives.
Today we’re looking at entitlement reform—mainly Social Security and Medicare—which Republicans have smartly taken off the table for the upcoming debt ceiling negotiations. But the longstanding Republican positions supporting these reforms aren’t going away, leaving some on the right in limbo when it comes to what they view as a long-term problem. We’ll also examine tonight’s primetime House hearing on China.
Social Security and Medicare are headed for insolvency—that’s just a mathematical, demographic fact. But when it comes to addressing the problem, there’s virtually nothing the two parties actually agree on. For years, Republicans have waffled between proposing cuts and kicking the can down the road.
Florida Sen. Rick Scott proposed a plan that would sunset all federal legislation every five years, which would require Congress to renew each law it wants to keep on the books. Scott later updated the proposal after touting it for nearly a year, adding a note addressed to President Joe Biden and others that claims the plan was never meant to include Social Security, Medicare, or the Navy. (While Scott’s plan now does list those “specific exceptions,” when it was originally published it listed none.) While it’s very easy to envision partisan gridlock over continuing entitlements, it is far harder to imagine political opposition to having a Navy.
Whether or not Scott ever really intended to push for entitlement reform, many other Republicans have done so over the years, with proposals that range from minor adjustments to deep cuts over the long term. The Biden White House put out a press release this month listing examples from the last decade, among others:
The Republican Study Committee, a top working group in the House GOP conference, included raising Medicare eligibility ages to reflect longer average lifespans in their 2023 budget proposal.
At a 2010 campaign event, Utah Sen. Mike Lee said it would be his “objective to phase out Social Security, to pull it up by the roots and get rid of it.”
The Trump administration’s annual budget proposals to Congress included cuts to Social Security and Medicare every year he was in office. (It’s worth noting that White House budget proposals are typically tossed aside by Congress, which then does what it pleases).
In 2017, Trump told Republicans he intended to go after entitlements at the start of his second term, when freedom from re-election pressures would make it more possible for him to tackle the unpopular issue.
An actual recent attempt at reform came in 2015, when a majority of House Republicans voted to raise the retirement age to 70, which would ax benefits for millions of Americans currently drawing from entitlement programs. The bill ultimately failed because a large minority of Republicans and the entirety of the Democratic caucus voted against it.
While talk of cutting Social Security and Medicare has since become taboo for members who need to be mindful of their re-election prospects—something that seems to happen on a recurring basis—some prominent Republicans have still pushed for it.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who is positioning himself for a 2024 presidential run, told CNBC, “While I respect the speaker’s commitment to take Social Security and Medicare off the table for the debt ceiling negotiations, we’ve got to put them on the table in the long term.”
And former House Speaker Paul Ryan has said both parties are putting the country at risk by shying away from cutting entitlements.
“I think what happened in my party is people got intimidated by the politics,” Ryan told the Washington Post. “Trump, who has chosen to engage in demagogic entitlement populism, has led a lot of people away from being responsible and from doing the right thing. . . . And the consequence of that, much like Biden’s politics, is to push us closer to bankruptcy.”
I asked a few Senate Republicans about whether Ryan is right that Social Security or Medicare might warrant cuts in the long term.
Not all of them had coherent answers. Alabama Sen. Tommy Tuberville told me, “I think long term all entitlements need to be reformed.” When I asked specifically if that would include Social Security and Medicare, he said, “Oh, no, no, we’re not going to touch that,” before adding, “Well, we’ve got to fix it so guys like you get it. If we don’t do something, we’ll get it to the point where we don’t have money in there for y’all. I think y’all want us to do that.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley, a former chair of the Finance Committee, told me, “I always start from a process standpoint. Because if this process isn’t in place, you aren’t getting any reforms.” Grassley has in mind an ideal model for such a process: “That is the Reagan-O’Neill commission.” The 1983 deal struck by Republican President Ronald Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill is widely considered to be one of the great bipartisan compromises; as AEI’s Philip Wallach recounted in 2019, that deal combined benefit cuts with revenue increases to put Social Security back on sound financial footing for decades.
Sen. John Cornyn, another longtime member of the Finance Committee, said, “[Social Security and Medicare] are going insolvent in a few years. If we don’t fix it between now and then, we’ll be forced to do it then in a state of emergency—I think that’s a bad idea.”
When I asked if that includes the kinds of cuts we’ve seen in past Republican proposals, Cornyn said, “Well, it’s not going to be cut, it’s going to be saved.”
Republicans are correct about Social Security and Medicare being in poor enough shape to be marching down the path to insolvency. Where they trip up is in making proposals to save them, which they can’t seem to do without either calling for major cuts or pushing back Americans’ retirement. As James Capretta recently noted in The Bulwark, if Democrats are wrong to believe they can solve our fiscal problems by just taxing the rich, Republicans are wrong to believe they can solve them without raising taxes at all. As the issue of stably funding these entitlements has become too politically toxic to address in the ways they have historically wanted, Republicans have been left without any other solutions to propose.
Bipartisanship in primetime
Tonight at 7 p.m. ET is the first public hearing of the new House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition Between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party. The hearing is titled “The Chinese Communist Party’s Threat to America.”
Unlike most of what has been done so far in the new Republican-led House, the creation of the China committee has received bipartisan support. And given the recent news about China sending spy balloons over North America (sometimes to be shot down on the president’s orders) and the recent assessment by the Department of Energy that the COVID-19 pandemic may have been caused by a lab leak after all, the hearing is coming at an important moment.
Tonight’s proceedings should be enlightening on the question of just how aggressive the committee is going to be with China. Every indication so far attests to ambitious plans on the part of committee members, several of whom returned from a trip to Taiwan last week. (The committee’s delegation to Taiwan included chairman Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, Ro Khanna of California, and Jake Auchincloss of Massachusetts.)
The January 6th Committee hearings were televised during primetime to draw extra attention to what happened at the Capitol that day and emphasize the importance of getting to the bottom of it. The China committee is following the same path, hoping to put on full display the nature of today’s dangerous international competition between the United States and China.