Ron Johnson: Must We Give People Medicare, Social Security Just Because They’re ‘Old’?

Sen. Ron Johnson, the Wisconsin Republican who’s perennially competing with Alabama’s Tommy Tuberville for the title of Senate’s Dumbest Republican, is allegedly running for reelection this year, which you wouldn’t necessarily know from the nutty proposal he floated on rightwing talk radio Tuesday: Instead of funding Medicare and Social Security automatically for all the people who qualify for the programs, maybe America should make them — and all other federal programs too! — “discretionary” spending, so Congress could decide every year whether to fund the pension and healthcare systems people have paid into all their lives?

On something called the “Regular Joe” show Tuesday, Johnson explained that he just wants better, more effective oversight of the programs, because in their current form they pay out benefits to everyone who qualifies, which is somehow a Very Bad Thing.


If you qualify for the entitlement, you just get it no matter what the cost. And our problem in this country is that more than 70 percent of our federal budget, of our federal spending, is all mandatory spending. 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. It’s just on automatic pilot. 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.

For as long as I’ve followed politics, going back to my wild college years during the Reagan administration, Republicans have been at war with “entitlement” programs, which provide benefits to any person who meets the eligibility rules for the program, like having reached retirement age and having paid into the system through payroll taxes.

The change Johnson’s calling for would make both programs like the military or the Veterans Affairs budget: “discretionary” spending that would have to be approved by Congress every year. That would mean that instead of having retirement and medical benefits that remain fairly stable from year to year (and with cost of living increases), retirees and other qualifying folks could look forward to their benefits and their eligibility being subject to an annual fight in Congress. You liked having prescription drug coverage? Well, maybe not for the coming four years, since Republicans control both houses and are in a budget-cutting mood.

And while it hasn’t gotten as much attention as his suggestions about opening up Medicare and Social Security to yearly budget fights, Johnson’s suggestion that “everything” become discretionary spending would mean that federal employee pay and benefits, and even federal staffing levels, would be subject to annual variation too. That sure would keep federal workers on their toes, not knowing from year to year whether Congress would pay them or provide health insurance for their families.

For some crazy reason, Democrats were quick to condemn Johnson’s brilliant idea. White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre called attention to the contrast between the administration’s goals and the perpetual GOP urge to slash Social Security and Medicare:

While @POTUS and congressional Democrats fight for the Inflation Reduction Act, which would let Medicare negotiate lower drug prices, congressional Republicans like @SenRonJohnson want to put Medicare on the chopping block.

That would devastate families.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-New York) blasted the proposal too, telling reporters yesterday that Democrats wouldn’t sit back and let the GOP “pull the rug out from under our seniors.”

The junior senator from Wisconsin wants to put Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block […] He has argued that the benefits which millions of Americans rely on every day shouldn’t be guaranteed, but should be subject to partisan infighting here in Washington. He would like to revoke the guarantee of Medicare and Social Security and make them discretionary. Well, you know what happens when we make things discretionary around here? All too often they get cut, or even eliminated. We don’t want to do that.

In a statement, Johnson spokesperson Alexa Henning insisted that the real danger to Medicare and Social Security comes from funding them fully, which America can’t afford, and that’s why Johnson wants to be able to burn them down in order to save them. Henning claimed that Johnson simply meant that

without fiscal discipline and oversight typically found with discretionary spending, Congress has allowed the guaranteed benefits for programs like Social Security and Medicare to be threatened.

This must be addressed by Congress taking its responsibilities seriously to ensure that seniors don’t need to question whether the programs they depend on remain solvent.

In mere reality, a 2021 Social Security Administration analysis found that the system will continue to be able to pay full benefits through 2034. Beyond that year, if current funding levels aren’t changed, only 78 percent of benefits would be covered — but Congress can modify payroll taxes or other aspects of the program to keep it solvent, without requiring huge tax increases. Switching it to an annual funding fight would mean cuts would be on the table every year as soon as the change was made — not that Congress is at all likely to buy Johnson’s plan, anyway.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has already shot down Rick Scott’s plan to sunset all federal programs, including Medicare and Social Security, every five years, and unlike Ron Johnson, McConnell is no idiot, so as evil as he is, he isn’t likely to commit his party to political seppuku.

One really terrific way to eliminate this latest threat to Medicare and Social Security would be for Wisconsin voters to elect Democrat Mandela Barnes this fall, taking Johnson and his bizarre ideas off the table altogether. Yesterday, Barnes tweeted

~surprise surprise~ the self-serving, multimillionaire Senator is trying to strip working people of the Social Security and Medicare benefits they’ve earned over a lifetime of hard work.

Barnes also noted that Johnson has supported Scott’s plan to throw the programs into chaos, warning that “The GOP has made it clear they’re coming for it all. We cannot let them do it.”

So in addition to your regular reminder that Barnes is one seriously hot dreamy guy (this statement is a mandatory condition of my continued employment), we’ll also point out that he knows voters aren’t in any hurry to eliminate two key parts of the American social compact. You’d think that would be a given for any candidate, but in Wisconsin, one party’s sitting senator thinks it might be fun to throw some chaos into people’s retirement plans. Get that guy out of there, please.

[Madison.com / WaPo / Brookings Institution]

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