In 2011, then-President Barack Obama and House Speaker John Boehner were prepared to cut Social Security and Medicare in order to support a bipartisan deal to raise the debt limit. The deal didn’t become reality, but it showed both parties were prepared to slash these benefits to help balance the budget.
Now, in 2023, lawmakers again find themselves haggling over spending as a Republican-controlled house presses for budgetary drawbacks to raise the debt limit under a Democratic president. But there’s only one bipartisan agreement for now: no cuts to Social Security and Medicare, a position that earned a bipartisan standing ovation at the State of the Union.
Over the course of more than a decade, the two programs have gone from being on the chopping block to becoming again sacrosanct.
The shift, observers say, is a result of advocacy groups educating and lobbying politicians to highlight the benefits’ popularities, and voting pattern shifts influencing both party’s positions. And with the two programs set to face funding shortfalls within the next decade without legislative changes, a fear is growing they’re now politically untouchable.
How both parties shifted
Cutting Social Security and Medicare in 2011 was always electorally unpopular, even as leaders endorsed it, said David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.
“The more remarkable thing is that Boehner and Obama were ever prepared to consider those (cuts),” he said. Although the position was politically perilous, if both parties passed the changes the thinking neither party could blame the other, Barker said.
That narrative changed thanks to efforts by those like Nancy Altman, the co-founder of Social Security Works. She and her colleague Eric Kingson started the group to counter what they viewed as the dominant lobbying narrative, which pushed for cuts in the name of “saving” the programs. She believed though cuts would weaken, not strengthen, Social Security. But one year into the organization, the 2011 deal arose.
“Everybody was talking about a bipartisan proposal, which is Washington insider speak for ‘let’s just cut the benefits,’ which is not what the American people want,” Altman said.
When the deal failed, Altman said more liberal lawmakers became interested in Social Security expansion rather than cuts. Chief among them is Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), the lead cosponsor of the House’s expansion bill. Larson said he thinks the movement has gained momentum because of the program’s current state.
“There’s 10,000 baby boomers a day becoming eligible,” he said. Despite this, benefits haven’t been touched since 1983 when amendments to secure the program’s financial longevity passed, and it hasn’t been expanded since the 1970s.
That 40-year drought of expansion, combined with the program’s popularity and effectiveness, are why lawmakers slowly have gotten on board, Larson said.
Come 2016 and new political leaders were rising on the backs of defending the benefits. On the left, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pushed for Social Security expansion and to open Medicare to all Americans. While his “Medicare for All” proposal didn’t initially gain momentum, he forced the eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton to support expanding Social Security benefits. President Obama then followed.
“Sanders was key because it really gave it a national stage,” Altman said about the senator’s role in pushing expansion. “He challenged (Clinton) on it.”
On the Republican side, Donald Trump was winning Republican primaries while running against touching the two senior benefit programs.
“He’s a much more populist figure,” Monique Morrisey, an economist at the liberal leaning Economic Policy Institute, said. The importance of big dollar donors, who often led the pushes for cuts she said, “to the Republicans was slightly less, as people were able to get attention and money through more populist stances.”
But Barker said the changing makeup of the GOP fueled the shift, and Trump merely seized on that. “As more and more of your party is comprised of the white working class, they don’t wake up in the morning looking for ways to expand the free market and kill Social Security.”
Barker also traces the shift to the Great Recession. A consensus between the two parties about avoiding deficits slowly turned to one that rejects “laissez faire” economics and embraces government.
Altman thinks though that, at least for Democrats, this is a return to a defense of programs their party created. “Democrats have returned to their roots,” she said.
Are actions matching the messaging?
Altman expressed doubt that Republicans are committed to protecting the programs. It’s a message that has been echoed by the White House, which has repeatedly questioned the stance of conservative lawmakers, pointing to proposals like that of Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) to sunset all federal legislation after five years, and past hostile comments of politicians. Scott recently announced that Social Security and Medicare would be exempt from his proposal after the administration’s attacks.
What worries Altman is what qualifies for Republicans as cuts. “Do you think raising the retirement age is a cut? Is means testing a cut? So suddenly, you can imagine that they could flip around again.”
But Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is trying to push Republicans to protect these programs, as part of building the “new GOP.” “Some Republicans say ‘Ah maybe this’d be a good opportunity to dial back those programs and the people who have paid into them,’” he has said. “I just couldn’t disagree with that more.”
Larson said he’s spoken with some Republicans who’ve been appreciative of his and others work on Social Security, but stop short at supporting his bill because of their small government philosophy. That’s why with the messaging change he sees an opportunity, but a tenuous one. “There’s that famous saying, ‘trust everyone, but cut the cards.’”
Chris Pope, a senior fellow at the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, pointed to Medicare as an example of how politicians talk one way but walk another. Medicare’s growth has been restricted because lawmakers use funding for its potential new services for other priorities. “Most of the cuts in Medicare are basically planned increases in the benefit package that don’t happen,” he said.
What it creates, Pope said, is a “constant hypocrisy” where lawmakers are limiting access to new benefits, but recipients don’t notice because they aren’t losing anything. With this being commonplace for years, Pope thinks the messaging is merely par for the course.
But Marc Goldwein, senior vice president and senior policy director at the Center for a Responsible Federal Budget, which advocates for a balanced budget, said while that may have been the case in the past this new rhetoric will eventually make the practice harder. “They’re going to interfere with each other. The messaging makes the action harder.”
Meanwhile there are still conversations ongoing in the Senate to address the programs’ finances. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) has a bill with Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) that would create ‘rescue committees’ to provide bipartisan recommendations and solutions regarding Social Security and Medicare’s solvency. And a bipartisan deal between Sen. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) is reportedly considering using stock market investments to increase funding for Social Security and potentially raising the retirement age to 70.
Morrisey said raising the retirement age amounts to a cut, which she would view as an abandonment of both parties’ promise. And she even doubts something like Romney’s proposal could be viewed without skepticism. “They’re saying. ‘we’re not talking about cuts, we’re just talking about the need to negotiate some sort of reform plan… but we need to do it behind closed doors.’”
A looming crisis
According to the Congressional Budget Office, Social Security is set to become depleted in 2032, when all recipients will receive a 20% cut in benefits. Meanwhile, Medicare’s hospital trust fund is set to face budgetary shortfalls in 2028. As it stands, 67 million Americans benefit from Social Security, while another 65.3 million are on Medicare. Those figures will only rise as the population disproportionately ages and reaches eligibility.
Despite the deadlines, Barker said any proposed changes will be viciously attacked. “If you raise any sort of prospect for reform at all now it’s going to be quickly demagogued,” he said. “We’re just going to keep kicking it down the road, and then at some point it’s going to be a crisis.”
In Goldwein’s eyes, the crisis has already arrived. The “luxury of time” has been exhausted, and the longer inaction continues he said the more painful solutions will become. “I don’t know what their strategy is to get from demagoguing to a deal,” he said.
Pope and Goldwein both said they can see how Medicare could garner a bipartisan deal, but they noted addressing Social Security will be much more difficult.
To put it simply, Goldwein said the political will has dried up on the issue, a fact he partially attributes to some interest groups misleading lawmakers. And his prediction for the future isn’t bright. “We may end up with across the board cuts, borrowing from general revenue, or a last minute deal that does a lot of painful things.”
Altman said the way to avoid that without attacking Social Security is to pass the expansion by raising revenues through taxing the rich more for the program, an idea Goldwein doubts now could work. But the fact expansion is even on the table Altman credits to the work of activists to identify lawmakers that threatened to weaken benefits. “It was the job of Social Security Works to say, ‘hey, your fingerprints are on that and we’re gonna let everybody know.’”
Larson was more hopeful crisis could be averted. He said as the media puts more attention on this issue, voters, mainly program recipients, are going to demand action.
“They are going to be a constituency that is only going to get louder as they are not going to be satisfied with the ‘we just kicked that can down the road,” he said. “They’re going to want answers.”