The truth about Biden, the GOP, Social Security, and Medicare
President Joe Biden has been criticizing Republicans for proposing cuts to Social Security and Medicare. For example, here is what Biden said in February 9 speech in Tampa:
Republicans don’t like me — being called out on this. They were not very happy with me pointing this out. But their words speak — Look, I know that a lot of Republicans, their dream is to cut Social Security and Medicare.
In response, major media outlets have accused Biden of lying, or at least stretching the truth.
Yes, this includes the usual suspects like Fox News. The right-wing outlet reported that the White House has "tripled down" on Biden's "false claim" that "congressional Republicans want to slash several programs including Social Security and Medicare."
Right-wing pundit Ben Shapiro described Biden's claims as "demagogic lies."
But similar claims about Biden have been made in more mainstream outlets. On ABC News, Jonathan Karl called Biden's claims about Social Security and Medicare during the State of the Union address "over the top" because "there's nobody seriously talking about sunsetting Social Security in the Republican Party." On CNN, pollster Frank Luntz described Biden's comments "dishonest."
The media is being encouraged by Republican officials themselves, who are flatly accusing Biden of lying. "President Biden has been making inaccurate accusations about Republicans and fearmongering to scare seniors when Republicans have been clear we are not going to touch their retirement security," the Republican House Ways and Means Committee claimed. Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) called Biden "dishonest" and "confused."
Biden's rhetoric is politically explosive, because large majorities of both parties support increasing benefits for Social Security, not cutting them. A 2022 poll found that 83% of Americans, and 84% of Republicans, support increasing Social Security benefits.
But Biden is not confused. The facts are unassailable: the majority of Republicans in Congress are advocating for cuts in Social Security and Medicare.
Republicans call for cuts in Social Security and Medicare
The largest caucus of House Republicans is the Republican Study Committee (RSC). There are 156 members of the RSC, which is more than 70% of the entire Republican delegation. The 2023 budget proposed by the RSC, called "The Blueprint to Save America," calls for cuts to Social Security and Medicare.
Specifically, the 2023 RSC budget cuts Social Security in two ways. First, it increases the retirement age by three years. That increase is phased in, reaching the full three-year increase in 12 years. After that, the retirement age would be continuously raised to align "the normal retirement ages to the life expectancy of retirees." The retirement age increase is a benefit cut because it reduces the benefit to zero for Americans who have not reached the new retirement age. Second, the RSC budget changes the benefit formula to reduce the benefits for all workers who are 54 years and younger. It would also weaken the health of the program by allowing workers to divert payroll taxes previously devoted to Social Security into private retirement accounts.
The RSC budget would also cut Medicare benefits by increasing the retirement age, first by "aligning Medicare’s eligibility age with the normal retirement age for Social Security and then indexing this age to life expectancy." This is a benefit cut because it reduces benefits to zero to seniors who would otherwise qualify. It would also transform Medicare benefits into a means-tested voucher program, similar to the one proposed by former Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) in 2012.
Congressman Buddy Carter (R-GA), a member of the House Budget Committee, said that the "main focus" of Republicans should be "entitlements." Republicans would be prepared with a series of "eligibility reforms," which is a way of cutting benefits by declaring more people completely ineligible. Carter said that these "reforms" would allow Republicans to avoid tax increases.
Last November, Senator John Thune (R-ND), the second-ranking Republican in the Senate, told Bloomberg reporters that "Republicans want to leverage the next US debt limit increase to force cuts in projected federal spending and changes to Social Security and other entitlement programs." Specifically, Thune advocated for "an increase in the Social Security retirement age" and the creation of a task force to explore other cuts.
Fox News, which now claims Biden is lying when he says Republicans are linking entitlement cuts to the debt ceiling, reported this was the plan in October:
In June 2022, Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) called for raising the retirement age and reducing benefits for some Americans.
Senator Rick Scott (R-FL), who chaired the National Republican Senatorial Committee in the 2022 cycle, released a plan that would "sunset" all programs after five years, including Social Security and Medicare. This would leave the programs vulnerable to elimination or deep cuts. Fact checkers have dinged Biden for "exaggerating" the popularity of Scott's plan, which was criticized by some prominent Republicans. But the plan was also endorsed by RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel. It also received positive reviews from Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI), Senator Mike Braun (R-IN), and Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL).
Biden's real vulnerability
Biden's comments about Republicans today are accurate. His real vulnerability on the issue stems from his own efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare years ago. “When I argued that we should freeze federal spending, I meant Social Security as well,” Biden said as a Senator in 1995. “I meant Medicare and Medicaid."
Biden's proposal operates as a benefit cut, since benefits are increased to account for inflation each year. “So, when those of my friends in the Democratic and Republican Party say to me, ‘How do you expect me to vote for your proposal? Does it not freeze Social Security [Cost of Living Adjustments] for one year? Are we not saying there will be no cost-of-living increases for one year?’ The answer to that is ‘Yes, that is what I am saying,’” Biden said in a Senate speech in 1984.
Biden was part of a neoliberal consensus at the time which argued that entitlement spending needed to be reduced in order to achieve a balanced budget. When he ran for president in 2020, however, Biden proposed to increase Social Security benefits, not freeze them. As president, Biden's budgets proposed substantial increases in the program. One of his signature legislative achievements, the Inflation Reduction Act, improved benefits for Medicare recipients.
So Biden has changed his position. Republicans have not.