The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Republicans are coming after Social Security. Democrats, take note.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), left, talks with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Capitol Hill on July 20. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Social Security is an enormously popular program. It’s also hugely effective. Minus their monthly check, a large number of seniors would live in financially straitened circumstances.

So, of course, the Republicans are once again taking aim at it and are, in the process, handing Democrats an issue almost as politically potent as abortion rights as they fight to hold on to their slim majorities in the November elections.

The most recent to join the fray is Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.). He announced earlier this week that he believes Social Security should be up for a congressional reauthorization vote every single year. “If you qualify for an entitlement, you get it no matter what the cost,” he huffed on a podcast.

The nerve of those entitled seniors. They paid faithfully into a program and expect a check. Imagine that!

This ups the ante from Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who opened the Social Security floodgates earlier this year when he proposed putting all government programs — including Social Security and Medicare — up for renewal every five years. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) immediately declared it dead on arrival, but that hasn’t stopped some Republicans such as Johnson from expressing their approval.

Catherine Rampell: Our uninsured rate is at a record low. But no victory laps just yet.

And then there is Arizona, where Blake Masters, Sen. Mark Kelly’s Republican challenger in November, has declared himself privatization-curious when it comes to Social Security.

“We need fresh and innovative thinking, maybe we should privatize Social Security,” he said in June. “Get the government out of it.” After enormous pushback, he backtracked, saying “I shouldn’t have said ‘privatize.’ I don’t think we should … mess with Social Security.”

Definitely spoken like a man you can rely on when it’s crunch time for Social Security.

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The Social Security trust fund is set to run out of money by 2035. In a worst-case scenario, when that happens, benefits would be cut — likely by 20 percent. But even that doesn’t need to happen. There is nothing stopping Congress from simply voting to allow Social Security benefits to be paid for out of general revenue.

The Republicans mouthing off claim to want to save Social Security from itself and that they aren’t attacking the program. Johnson says a yearly renewal would allow Washington pols to “fix problems or fix programs that are broken, that are going to be bankrupt.” As for Masters, he parrots the common but false belief that the program won’t be able to pay anyone benefits in the future.

Democrats, on the other hand, actually have systemic plans to address these woes. As I noted last week, there are two bills in Congress that would shore up the program while expanding benefits. One, sponsored by Rep. John B. Larson (D-Conn.), would extend solvency for several years. Another, championed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would solidify it through the end of the century.

Both bills would raise taxes on higher earners. Perhaps not coincidentally, neither has a single Republican co-sponsor.

In fact, polls show voters want, per Sanders and Larson, a more generous and stable Social Security program, not a smaller, riskier and precarious one. This isn’t a surprise. As the pension system has increasingly given way to defined contribution schemes such as 401(k) plans, more and more Americans are at risk of running short of money in their golden years.

This is particularly true for Latinos, a group Republicans are making gains with, who possess a mere fraction of the wealth of White households, and are less likely to use individual retirement savings options.

So it was no surprise, when progressive polling group Data for Progress asked likely voters last month whether they supported Scott’s plan to end federal programs such as Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid if Congress didn’t vote to reauthorize them, the proposal received a resounding thumbs-down, with three-fourths of those surveyed expressing their dismay.

When President George W. Bush and his fellow Republicans tried to push through Social Security privatization in 2005, it quite possibly contributed to the party losing control of the House in 2006.

Conversely, it’s quite possible that Donald Trump triumphed in 2016, in part, because as other Republican candidates seemingly competed to see who could toss grandma from the train hardest and fastest, he declared he would “save” Social Security. Yet, by 2020, he, too, was making noises about “entitlement” reform.

Since the program began, there have been Republicans who have attempted to cut back on or get the government out of Social Security. All of this trash talk is just the latest line of attack, taking advantage of a combination of deficit scare-mongering, fears for the program’s future, and a pervasive and widely shared sense that the U.S. government no longer works and can’t accomplish much for anyone — something I’ve dubbed the “can’t do” society — to make progress toward a long-sought goal.

It’s almost as though these Republicans can’t stop themselves from acting on the hope that when it comes to Social Security, the majority of voters won’t take them seriously, even as the GOP base laps their message up. But, in an age when increasing numbers of Americans are going to need a Social Security check to get by in retirement, that seems like a risky bet.

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