By Alan Rappeport
President Joe Biden warned earlier this week that Republicans posed a threat to Social Security and Medicare, amplifying an effort by Democrats to make the fate of America’s social safety net programs a central campaign issue before November’s midterm elections.
The comments were part of a push by Democrats across the country to steer the political conversation away from soaring prices and growing recession fears and remind anxious voters that some Republicans have been calling for restructuring or scaling back entitlement programs that retirees have relied on for decades.
The strategy is a return to a familiar election-year theme. Although Biden, who spoke from the White House’s Rose Garden, offered few details about how he would preserve the benefits, he insisted that if Republicans regained control of Congress they would try to take them away.
“What do you think they’re going to do?” Biden asked, brandishing a copy of a plan drafted by Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., that would allow Social Security and Medicare to “sunset” if Congress did not pass new legislation to extend them.
A spokesperson for Scott said the senator was fighting to protect Social Security and Medicare.
The criticism has put Republicans on the defensive, with many arguing that their policies would ensure that Social Security and Medicare do not run out of money.
Despite suggestions of their imminent demise, Social Security and Medicare are unlikely to be altered as long as Biden is in power. Top Republicans including Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, have said that Scott’s proposal is a nonstarter.
But decades of political squabbling have left the programs in limbo.
Tens of millions of aging Americans rely on Social Security and Medicare to supplement their income and health care expenses. The finances of Social Security and Medicare have been on unstable ground for years, and Congress has been unable to come together to find a solution to secure the solvency of the programs.
Government actuaries said in June that the health of the social safety net programs improved slightly last year, because of the strength of the economic recovery, but that shortfalls were still looming.
Biden did not offer a specific proposal for the programs on Tuesday beyond keeping them out of the hands of Republicans. He also took aim at Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., who is facing reelection and has suggested that all federal spending, including for Social Security and Medicare, should be reviewed annually by Congress.
“He wants to put Social Security and Medicare on the chopping block every single year in every budget,” Biden said. “If Congress doesn’t vote to keep it, goodbye.”
Johnson said on Twitter on Tuesday that he wanted to save Social Security, Medicare and benefits for veterans, and that Democrats were telling “lies” about his proposals.
“The greatest threat to these programs is the massive, out-of-control deficit spending enacted by Biden and Dems in congress,” Johnson said.
The Social Security Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund, which pays retiree benefits, will be depleted in 2034, at which time the fund’s reserves will run down and incoming tax revenue will be enough to cover only 77% of scheduled benefits. Medicare’s hospital trust fund, which does not affect benefits that cover doctor visits and prescription drugs, improved last year but is expected to encounter a shortfall in 2028.
Concerns about the solvency of the programs come as retirees are grappling with the highest levels of inflation in four decades. Social Security payments are expected to increase by around 9% next month when a cost-of-living adjustment that is pegged to inflation is announced.
Those increases are usually somewhat offset by an increase in Medicare premiums for doctors’ visits, but Biden said those premiums would not rise this year.
Senators like Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., called earlier for expanding Social Security and extending its solvency by raising taxes on the rich.