President Joe Biden on Tuesday vowed to keep Social Security and Medicare on their current course toward bankruptcy, vowing to block any attempt by Congress to cut benefits to the two major entitlement programs.
And Republicans vociferously agreed.
“If somebody tries to cut Social Security,” Biden said in the State of the Union address, “if somebody tries to cut Medicare, I’m going to stop them. I’m going to veto.”
Except, well, it’s not clear that anyone is trying to cut them. Republican leaders also said they would not consider cuts to Social Security or Medicare as part of the upcoming debt ceiling talks — something Biden acknowledged when Republican members of Congress loudly protested their plan’s features during the speech. “I think there is no problem,” he declared.
But there is A problem. Social Security will be bankrupt by 2034. When bankruptcy hits, both programs will be subject to mandatory benefit cuts. The exact size of the cut will depend on payroll tax collections that year, but current estimates are that Social Security will be able to pay only 80 percent of promised benefits in 2034.
As I wrote last month, when Republicans like former President Donald Trump made similar pledges not to cut Social Security benefits: pledging to do nothing is tantamount to pledging to cut benefits by about 20 percent over more than a decade. That’s getting no closer to reality.
What you saw during Tuesday night’s speech was a bipartisan suicide deal.
Biden’s solution appears to be to “give the rich and big corporations their fair share,” but it’s unclear what that means, since entitlement programs are funded by payroll taxes — paid by workers and employers — and not by federal income taxes. Biden is set to outline a fiscal plan next month. We’ll get more details on exactly how the White House plans to deal with the entitlement crisis.
Even so, the State of the Union address would be a good time for that sort of thing. Well good.
“Social Security and Medicare are a lifeline for millions of veterans,” Biden said. “Americans have been paying for them with every single paycheck since they started working. So tonight, let’s all agree to stand up for seniors.”
Standing up for seniors (and everyone else who has been paying into Social Security and Medicare for their entire careers) requires recognizing that there is no reality in which politicians do nothing and entitlement programs operate as normal. The choice is to change now or accept mandatory cuts in about a decade.
The clock is ticking, but Biden gave no indication Tuesday night that he was paying attention to it. And Republicans’ vocal response to his comments suggests they’re not serious about it either.