On a podcast on Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) said that he believes Social Security and Medicare should be turned into discretionary spending programs – a move that would require Congress to pass a bill each year in order to fund them and likely lead to massive conservative-led cuts to the programs.
Currently, both programs are funded automatically. But Johnson said he wanted more oversight on them, and that he believes that the best way to do that is through required funding debates annually in Congress. “What we ought to be doing is we ought to turn everything into discretionary spending so it’s all evaluated so that we can fix problems or fix programs that are broken,” Johnson misleadingly said.
If his plan were to happen, which is unlikely, it would likely lead to huge partisan budget battles each year, with a possibility of cuts in funding to the social spending programs — and thus potential cuts for beneficiaries.
These programs, however, are not “broken” or facing a huge funding problem at the moment – from 1983 to 2021, for instance, Social Security raised a surplus every year. In its most recent year, the program did run a deficit, but that was offset by funding reserves from previous years.
Even if the programs were facing funding issues, holding yearly debates over their existence could lead to cuts, and vast detrimental effects on its recipients and society at large. Both programs were first introduced in order to provide a crucial social safety net for seniors, disabled people and other vulnerable populations; Social Security is consistently one of the most popular government programs and, while in dire need of upgrades, has allowed millions of people to retire and avoid poverty. Medicare, meanwhile, has saved countless lives and experts say that cutting it would be disastrous.
Many lawmakers believe that the programs need better funding mechanisms for the future – Social Security is projected to not be solvent any longer by the year 2034, for instance – but conservatives often bring up their funding mechanisms as a cover for cutting the programs.
Johnson’s office has denied that he was suggesting making cuts, but Republicans have for years tried to use the possibility of these programs becoming non-solvent as a means to implement drastic cuts to them, or eradicate them entirely in favor of a privatized version of them that would come at the detriment of those in need.
If there are problems with Medicare and Social Security funding, experts say that they are problems concerning budget shortfalls. Economists have for years stated that the best way to ensure continued funding for Social Security and Medicare is to lift tax caps on the wealthy.
Currently, only the first $147,000 of a person’s income is subject to the Social Security tax. That means a person earning more than that is paying a far smaller tax rate than people making under that threshold — a person earning $1 million in income per year pays less than 1 percent of their income to the program, for instance.
By “scrapping the cap” entirely, the program would not only be solvent, but benefits could also be raised, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) said in June. Oversight can happen in other ways beyond what Johnson has suggested, if he even is suggesting that the programs should be improved rather than cut.
Critics lambasted Johnson’s calls for changing how Social Security and Medicare are funded.
On its official Twitter account, the White House stated that “congressional Republicans like @SenRonJohnson want to put Medicare on the chopping block.”
“That would devastate families,” the White House added.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) also spoke out against Johnson’s plan, stating that he and other Republicans are “saying the quiet part out loud” when it comes to their intentions for social spending programs many rely upon.
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, the presumptive Democratic nominee set to challenge Johnson in this year’s senatorial race in the state, also took aim at the Republican.
“Wisconsinites pay into Social Security through a lifetime of hard work, and they’re counting on this program and Medicare — but Ron Johnson just doesn’t care,” Barnes said.
Johnson has made a number of controversial statements over the past year. A longtime denier of the climate crisis, Johnson called it “bullshit” during a meeting with state Republicans earlier this summer. Johnson also pretended to be on a phone call in June in order to avoid questions from reporters regarding his congressional office’s involvement in trying to pass on lists of “fake” electors from Wisconsin and Michigan in 2020 to then-Vice President Mike Pence, ahead of the certification of the Electoral College.
Johnson, perhaps demonstrating that his desire to significantly alter social spending programs is not an anomaly, also suggested in March that Republicans would likely resume trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act if they win back Congress this year and the presidency in 2024, in spite of its popularity among most Americans.
Polling on Johnson’s and Barnes’s race this fall shows that it’s a tight race. The two are statistically tied with one another, per the margin of error in a Marquette University Law School poll conducted last month, with Barnes just slightly ahead by 2 points.
Johnson also has a net-negative favorability rating among Wisconsinites. According to that same poll, only 37 percent of his constituents give him a favorable grade, while 46 percent say they view the two-term senator unfavorably.