Column, Opinions

Republicans’ Troubled Relationship With Social Security

The State of the Union is an opportunity for the sitting president to exercise the power of the “bully pulpit.” It is a chance to speak to all the power holders of Washington and the American people, and it is the perfect setting for presidents to share their agendas. In recent years, however, many opposition leaders from both parties have used the address as an opportunity to protest the sitting president. Former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi infamously ripped up former President Donald Trump’s speech in 2020, and Marjorie Taylor Greene loudly heckled President Joe Biden at this year’s address. Outbursts like these were considered an offense worthy of official reprimand as recent as 2009. Now, it has become a familiar or even expected event on Capitol Hill.

In this year’s State of the Union, the arguably most-remembered moment was President Biden’s “rope-a-dope.” Biden suggested that some members of the GOP wanted to sunset Social Security and Medicare. When most Republicans shouted back, he essentially goaded them into admitting the GOP would not threaten either program in the 118th Congress. Democrats saw Biden “baiting” Republicans into defending social security as a win, but the GOP didn’t care much—Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy had already stated that cutting Social Security would not be on the table during debt ceiling negotiations in the weeks prior to the address. Still, given his immense trouble handling rebellious Republican representatives, McCarthy should know better than anyone that the speaker does not hold unilateral authority over his caucus.

Social Security is the broad name given to various forms of social welfare that support people ranging from elderly retirees to individuals with disabilities to family members of a deceased spouse or parent. The most well-known program is for retirees. The program is funded by a tax out of an employees and employers paycheck that goes into a trust fund. Current retirees then receive a monthly check based off how much they paid into the system while they were working. Upon its inception, Social Security massively reduced elderly poverty without major reductions to household incomes, and it continues to provide necessary aid to impoverished seniors. 

Although the GOP’s supposed party line supports Social Security, there are many Republicans  in both houses of Congress who see Social Security as a prime target in their policy agenda. An old video of Sen. Mike Lee of Utah went viral recently, where he said he wants to “pull it up by the roots.” Majority Leader Steve Scalise released a budget just a few months ago that would raise the Social Security retirement age, Sen. John Thune believed that threatening social security could be used as “leverage” against Democrats, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in 2018 that Social Security can be cut in the interest of reducing the deficit. Out of all congressmen, however, Social Security advocates have hammered Sen. Rick Scott the most for wanting to end the program—an allegation that he denies. In the senator’s defense, he never did say that he wanted to end Social Security specifically. Instead, he went further and actually wanted to sunset all federal programs. And, to his credit, he did eventually backtrack after the State of the Union and specifically exempted Social Security and Medicare from his sunsetting plan. 

If you are surprised that threats to Social Security have been in the news recently, don’t be. This is nothing new. The GOP has been gunning for Social Security since the President George W. Bush years, and it nearly succeeded in cutting the program heavily during President Barack Obama’s administration. Though Bush revisionists would like you to forget, following the 2004 election Bush declared he had a popular mandate and would advocate for Social Security privatization. Setting aside Bush’s generous definition of what counts as a “mandate,” his privatization idea was wildly unpopular. Then, in 2008, Republican presidential nominee John McCain shared vague notions of workers using personal “accounts” to supplement Social Security, which he swore was not just another way of saying privatization.

Then there was the “grand bargain” of 2011–12, a failed compromise between then-President Obama and then–House Speaker John Boehner that would have involved massive cuts to Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, in addition to tax raises. The deal ultimately fell through—progressives would not accept the entitlement cuts and hard-right Republicans refused to raise taxes on top income earners. This shows you the GOP’s priorities. 

No one should be fooled about the GOP’s history with Social Security. Cutting it or reducing it has been a clear goal for a good portion of the party—ranging from major senators to even the president—for over 20 years. If Social Security is to remain alive, we must maintain pressure on our politicians. For example, we can donate to and vote for candidates that will defend this critical program. Biden, who negotiated the grand bargain when he was vice president, currently defends Social Security. Even Scott was compelled to change when he was put under pressure. Social Security provides for the livelihoods of millions of people every year. To preserve it, we must ensure that our politicians understand why the program has been settled law for years.

March 19, 2023