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Retire Better: Yes, Republicans want changes to Social Security and Medicare entitlements—because some changes are needed

Growing up, I used to watch a sportscaster whose catchphrase was “Let’s go to the videotape!” And then he’d show a monster home run, touchdown pass or slam dunk. 

Well, here’s a different kind of slam dunk. During his State of the Union address, President Biden taunted Republicans for saying they want to cut Social Security and Medicare—even “sunset” it every five years, meaning that if lawmakers didn’t vote to keep the programs, they would sunset—vanish. 

Republicans were outraged. 

“Liar!” screamed Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene. Meanwhile, Utah Sen. Mike Lee was shown shaking his head, dumbfounded that such an accusation could be made. 

Oh? “Let’s go to the videotape!”

There’s Lee, looking shocked—SHOCKED! (as Claude Rains said in “Casablanca”) that Biden could accuse anyone of threatening to kill Social Security and Medicaid. On the right? Lee says exactly that. 

“It will be my objective,” he said, wagging his finger sanctimoniously, “to phase out Social Security. To pull it up by the roots and get rid of it.”

He then says the same of Medicare and Medicaid.

If you look at the folks Lee was speaking to, they look to be older, and a few can be heard clapping. Clapping? What for?

But let’s be careful here. Biden didn’t say that all, or even most Republicans want to take an ax to these programs, like Lee. He only said that “some” do. His exact quote: 

Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset every five years.

That means if Congress doesn’t vote to keep them, those programs will go away.

Other Republicans say if we don’t cut Social Security and Medicare, they’ll let America default on its debt for the first time in our history.

I won’t let that happen.

You can read the full transcript of the president’s remarks here

The president’s words—carefully chosen—were accurate. 

On Wednesday, Florida Sen. Rick Scott put out an ad demanding that Biden resign, accusing the president of lying about entitlement cuts. But last year, when Scott headed the National Republican Senatorial Committee, it introduced a five-year sunset clause for all federal legislation, including Social Security and Medicare. The president’s claim was correct: The proposal would have made Social Security and Medicare subject to regular congressional approval. That a senator from Florida, top heavy with seniors, would wish to be associated with such an idea seems crazy—and indeed, that’s what Mitch McConnell the Senate Republican leader, thought. He deep-sixed Scott’s idea, not because he disagreed with it philosophically, but because he knew it would hurt Republicans at the polls. 

Read: 12 things you need to know about Social Security’s future, explained by the program’s chief number-cruncher

We know McConnell thinks this way, because in October 2018 he called entitlements “the real drivers of the debt,” adding they need to be adjusted “to the demographics of America in the future.”

Then there’s Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson, who has said “If you qualify for the entitlement, you just get it no matter what the cost,” adding, “It’s on automatic pilot. It never, you just don’t do proper oversight. You don’t get in there and fix the programs going bankrupt.”

There’s more, but you get the idea. 

Let me be clear on this next point. Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are absolutely essential programs which must be preserved. Full stop. Enough of the crazy ideas about yanking them up by the roots or allowing them to sunset. And yet, partisan politics aside, there are some basic truths about these gargantuan federal programs that must be acknowledged.

Here are two: 

The Social Security Trustees estimate that unless fixes are made, the Social Security Trust Fund will run out in nine years, After that, it estimates that retirees would get just 77% of their benefits. Either taxes will have to go up, or eligibility ages raised, or perhaps some combination of both.

Medicare’s Hospital Insurance trust fund is projected to be depleted in 2028, says no less an authority than the Medicare Board of Trustees (here’s an explanation from the Kaiser Family Foundation). 

These are painful realities, and they are fast approaching. President Biden and Kevin McCarthy, the new house speaker, have pledged to work together to solve problems. I can think of nowhere more important to start than right here. But enough of the GOP scare talk. 

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