Opponents of Social Security and Medicare are so eager to end these two overwhelmingly important and popular earned benefits that they can’t contain themselves. Mick Mulvaney, the Trump administration’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, is the latest to make crystal clear the longstanding plan to destroy both programs.
Speaking at a conference of state legislators hosted by the anti-government American Legislative Exchange Council (“ALEC”), Mulvaney just revealed that he plans first to go after what he sees as more politically achievable cuts. He explained that the next step, presumably after Trump is in his second term, will be for the administration not just to cut these programs but to end them as we know them.
Mulvaney is apparently so eager to go after our earned benefits that he threw the point into a speech to state legislators, even though both Social Security and Medicare are federal programs.
Mulvaney’s apparent uncontained enthusiasm to take away people’s earned benefits is similar to that of Mitch McConnell, who just weeks before the midterm, called for Social Security and Medicare to be “adjusted” (code for destroying them). McConnell couldn’t resist broadcasting his intentions, even though these programs are extremely popular even with Republican voters.
Why are these opponents so hostile to such important programs? Social Security, now more than eight decades old, and Medicare, now more than five decades old, have stood the test of time. Both of these efficient, virtually universal, overwhelmingly popular programs insure us against risks that all of us face. Rich or poor, anyone can suffer a disabling illness or accident, making work impossible. Rich or poor, any parent can die prematurely leaving dependent children. Rich or poor, all of us hope to live to old age and, if we are so fortunate, require income we cannot outlive and health insurance for the treatments and medication we inevitably will need.
The private sector is incapable of providing the wage and health insurance that Social Security and Medicare provide as efficiently, universally, securely or effectively as the federal government. Insurance works best when the greatest numbers of people are covered. The only entity that can require that everyone is covered and pays premiums as soon as they start working is the federal government. That is one of the reasons both Social Security and Medicare work so well.
And that is why Mulvaney, McConnell, and other opponents of these programs want to end them. These programs put the lie to their ideological zealotry, which insists that the private sector is always better than government.
Decades ago, opponents of these programs were forthright that their objections were ideological. They did not see the creation and administration of universal insurance programs as an appropriate role for the federal government. But the American people overwhelmingly disagreed, so this argument was utterly unsuccessful.
Now most opponents have changed their tactics, and proclaim their love for these programs. President George W. Bush, for example, proclaimed, “Social Security was a great moral success of the 20th century, and we must honor its great purposes in this new century.” His very next sentence argued for radically changing it.
Similarly, Mulvaney, McConnell, and other opponents hide their straightforward ideological opposition. Rather, these opponents subversively seek to undermine confidence in Social Security’s and Medicare’s future by asserting that both programs are unaffordable.
Worse, in their efforts to end Social Security and Medicare, they seek to turn Americans against each other. They tell us that seniors are taking from children, that people with disabilities are taking from seniors.
Moreover, in their efforts to lull us into thinking they are not seeking to hurt our legitimate interests, opponents claim that our vital and earned financial protection in the event of disability isn’t as “core” as our financial protection in the event of old age. In his recent ALEC speech, Mulvaney tried to make just such a claim, asserting, “You can reform and save a ton of money in Medicare and Social Security and not touch the primary pillars for the next several years.” Along those same lines, last April, Mulvaney rhetorically asked, “Do you really think that Social Security disability insurance is part of what people think of when they think of Social Security?”
I am confident that the over 10 million Americans receiving Social Security because of wages lost as the result of serious, work-ending disabilities understand that Social Security disability insurance is Social Security. When American workers pay into Social Security with every paycheck, disability insurance is one of the protections they earn, along with life insurance and retirement annuities.
Social Security disability benefits are inextricably intertwined with Social Security’s retirement and survivor benefits. Social Security benefits are generated from the same formula. When workers with disabilities reach retirement age, their benefit is unchanged in amount but is paid as a retirement benefit, no longer as a disability benefit. Despite those facts, though, Mulvaney’s claim that Social Security disability insurance is not really Social Security is a convenient rhetorical game to claim “core” benefits are not being touched.
For Medicare, Mulvaney revealed another trick before his ALEC audience. He floated the idea of Medicare no longer reimbursing teaching hospitals its fair share of those hospitals’ costs, arguing that the cut wouldn’t hurt beneficiaries. Like his claim that Social Security disability insurance is not “really’ Social Security, beneficiaries would be hurt, though not immediately, and the cause of the hurt would be difficult to trace.
While benefits wouldn’t be directly cut, it certainly would limit the ability of Medicare beneficiaries to get treatment at teaching hospitals if that were their choice and the best setting for their care. To the extent Medicare didn’t pay its fair share and teaching hospitals nevertheless continued to treat seniors and people with disabilities, those costs would be shifted to everyone else.
And, of course, this is just the start, Mulvaney made clear. “In the long term you’ll have to [make more major changes.] The president has asked me to fix the easy stuff first,” Mulvaney explained to his audience.
Fortunately, the Democrats—who support expanding, not cutting, Social Security and Medicare—have control of the House of Representatives, at least for now. But, all of us who want to keep the benefits we have earned must remain vigilant. We must not be fooled or confused into allowing opponents to make what they deem “easy” cuts to our earned benefits.
These opponents will not give up. And neither must we. Expanding, not cutting, our Social Security and Medicare is profoundly wise policy and is overwhelmingly popular. But it will only become a reality if we keep our voices loud, reminding our political leaders that it’s voters, not donors, to whom they must account next election day.