Too bad the biggest headlines coming out of President Joe Biden’s recent State of the Union address had to do with decorum, whether it was Marjorie Taylor Greene’s booing — and the many right-wingers who joined in this act of infantilism — or the beyond-ironic observation from serial fabulist George Santos who posted on social media that Biden was “gaslighting” Americans. Really? At least the latter received a well-earned rebuke of “You don’t belong here” from Republican U.S. Sen. Mitt Romney. The nation had no shortage of evidence that the U.S. House of Representatives (and the state of partisan politics, in general) was a mess before the speech. Now, they have a convenient reminder that cat-calling and heckling passes for statesmanship under the leadership of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, despite his promise of no “childish games” during the speech.
We would, instead, advise our readers to consider a more important exchange that began with President Biden’s observation that some Republicans are seeking to sunset Social Security and Medicare. That drew quite an uproar from the GOP, too, but it has the seemingly inconvenient circumstance of being truthful. Just last year, U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, the head of the party’s U.S. Senate campaign, released a plan to “save” America that included requiring Social Security and Medicare, along with other spending programs, to be reapproved every five years. Given the current dysfunction in Washington, such an endorsement is far from guaranteed. House Republicans are already toying with the debt ceiling and a possible government default so it’s hardly a stretch to see this prospect as worrisome. As Greene and the like-minded yelled “liar” and the like, Biden took advantage: “So folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?” The line received big cheers.
A lot of Democrats enjoyed this exchange. First because it demonstrated their 80-year-old president is still sharp, but also because it seemingly traps Republicans in supporting two of the nation’s most important social safety-net programs. To which we can only add: Big deal. It’s one thing to claim to support these popular initiatives, it’s quite another to devise a bipartisan solution to keep them solvent. And make no mistake, they both are headed toward insolvency. Not today but not that far in the future. According to the Congressional Research Service, the combined Social Security Trust Funds could be depleted by 2035, a product of flat revenues but growing costs. Benefits wouldn’t immediately zero out, but they might be reduced substantially. Medicare could run into trouble by 2028 with similar consequences. And the longer the powers-that-be in Washington wait to fix them, the more potentially painful the cure.
So if Democrats and Republicans are quite finished scoring whatever political points they seek to score from whatever constituencies they want to impress, could they please start acting like grown-ups and preserve two programs that are particularly important to seniors? Ideally, the fix to Social Security would involve collecting greater payroll contributions from high earners by raising the maximum taxable base ($160,200 this year). But, realistically, it might also reduce benefits through at least two potential avenues — eventually delaying full retirement beyond age 67 or changing how inflation is calculated each year to raise benefits. Polls show Americans like raising the payroll tax cap the most. Medicare Trust Fund options are a bit more complicated, but they, too, can start with a slightly higher payroll tax.
The problem is that it’s much easier to demagogue on the issue. Republicans may disown Senator Scott’s ideas on Social Security and Medicare, but you don’t see a lot of party members lining up to raise taxes of any kind on any thing. Democrats may be enjoying watching the Republicans get roasted on this issue, but that doesn’t solve much either. Will they be willing to talk about cutting benefits in exchange for some movement on the payroll tax cap? That would require a more substantive public conversation than we saw this week. How much easier it is for politicians to boo or play gotcha games than tackle serious problems with serious proposals.
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