For the second time this year, a key Senate Republican has suggested that Social Security and Medicare should be taken off the automatic-funding process that ensures people who have paid into the systems get what is coming to them, and instead be tossed up for regular congressional re-approval. They seem not to have considered the deep dysfunction that prevents most legislation from passing today — thanks mostly to their own party. Worse, maybe they have considered it.
When conservatives talk about “entitlements,” they act as if it’s charity. In fact, both programs, despite their problems, are crucial to millions of older Americans who have paid into them throughout their working lives and, thus, are entitled to.
Social Security has long been the quintessential third rail of politics — touch it, and you’re dead. It is among the most popular programs not just in government today, but in the history of government. It deserves its popularity. When Franklin Roosevelt ushered it in during the 1930s (over intense Republican opposition), the goal was to end the then-common specter of poverty that awaited most Americans in old age. It has worked spectacularly. Unlike most government programs, it is largely self-funded, by future retirees. Medicare, which came along in the 1960s to address retiree medical care, operates under a similar process.
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Keeping the programs adequately funded as Americans live longer is a challenge, but a far more manageable one than America would face if those benefits were withdrawn or significantly reduced. That’s why politicians never launch frontal attacks against either program. But Republicans — who, as a party, have never quite made peace with these successful experiments in quasi-socialism — are always offering privatization schemes and other so-called “reforms” that would ultimately undermine the benefits.
Sen. Rick Scott, R-Florida, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, early this year suggested sunsetting “all federal legislation” after five years, reasoning that “If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.” Critics immediately pointed out that would, by definition, include Social Security and Medicare.
In a recent interview, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, took it further. Johnson complained that those who qualify for Social Security and Medicare — because they paid into the programs, remember — “just get it no matter what the cost.” He said both programs should face annual reauthorization in Congress to get their funding.
This is a body that, thanks to GOP intransigence, somewhat regularly threatens to shut down the entire federal government rather than approve routine raises to the debt ceiling. The notion of subjecting seniors to annual floor debate over whether their monthly Social Security checks and Medicare benefits will continue is nothing less than horrifying. That some Senate Republicans would repeatedly threaten to destabilize these bedrock programs should give pause to anyone who thinks the GOP should take back control of Congress this year.