NEW YORK -- In little-noticed remarks at a Tea Party town hall meeting earlier this year, Republican Connecticut Senate candidate Linda McMahon proposed introducing a "sunset provision" into the Social Security Act.
McMahon, the former CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, has consistently dodged questions about cutting government entitlement programs in her two Senate runs.
Speaking before a group of Tea Party supporters in Waterford, Conn. on April 20, however, McMahon said she would consider making major changes to Social Security, from raising the retirement age to means-testing benefits. She also proposed introducing a "sunset provision" -- the legislative term for putting an expiration date on a law unless it is renewed.
It's unclear what McMahon meant when she spoke about a "sunset provision" for Social Security, and her campaign did not directly address the word in a statement. McMahon's spokesman defended the candidate's record on entitlement programs and attacked her opponent, Chris Murphy.
"Linda McMahon is committed to reforming entitlements without breaking the promises we've made to our seniors," said Todd Abrajano. "Linda McMahon will never vote for a budget that cuts Social Security for seniors, and unlike Chris Murphy she would never have voted to cut Medicare by $716 billion."
At the April Tea Party gathering, McMahon said in response to a question about how to "strengthen" Social Security and Medicare that "we cannot continue doing things the way we are doing with Social Security. We're just simply going to be bankrupt."
The candidate later continued, "In other words, I believe in sunset provisions when we pass this kind of legislation, so that you take a look at it 10, 15 years down the road to make sure that it's still going to fund itself. Social Security will run out of money if we continue to do what we're doing, if we rob the trust fund, if we think that there's any money there."
What McMahon's idea for a Social Security Act "sunset provision" means is far from clear. The health of the government-run retirement program depends in part on current workers continuing to contribute payroll taxes, as well as a $2.7 trillion trust fund that is projected to last until 2033 if nothing is done to change the program.
In a 2011 speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) used a phrase a similar to the one used by McMahon.
Daniels proposed an "affectionate thank you to the major social welfare programs of the last century, but their sunsetting when those currently or soon-to-be-enrolled have passed off the scene. The creation of new Social Security and Medicare compacts with the young people who will pay for their elders and who deserve to have a backstop available to them in their own retirement."
Like McMahon, Daniels brought up the idea of means testing (to weed out the affluent as beneficiaries) and raising the retirement age. In effect, the new Social Security he envisioned may have very little in common with the one we already know: not all seniors would be able to access it, and others would have to wait years further into their retirements to take advantage of it. Daniels also proposed decreasing Social Security's cost-of-living adjustments. The program, he said, "should protect benefits against inflation, but not overprotect them."
After the speech, conservatives praised Daniels for his outspoken, tough-on-entitlement speech. But McMahon has generally been far more circumspect: in her 2010 Senate race against Richard Blumenthal, she said discussions about fixing Social Security have to be done "outside the political arena," and refused to outline specifics about her plan for the program.
In the Tea Party video from April 2012, McMahon did stipulate that any changes to Social Security should be done in a "bipartisan" fashion and that she would not support changing benefits for current retirees.
A new poll released Wednesday by Public Policy Polling had McMahon trailing her opponent, Democratic US Representative Chris Murphy, by six points, 48-42, with a +/-3.5 percent margin of error.
FULL TRANSCRIPT OF MCMAHON'S REMARKS:
Question: Do you believe that Social Security and Medicare are in financial trouble, and if so, what would you do to strengthen them?
McMahon: Well they clearly are in trouble. We know that they're not sustainable at their current rate. There are a lot of ways that we could look at strengthening Social Security. I do think that we're going to have to do it in a bipartisan way. There are suggestions on the table, you know, that range from raising the retirement age, you know, to other methods, to means testing, to other things. And I think that we're going to have to do that in a bipartisan fashion in Congress. We cannot continue doing things the way we are doing with Social Security. We're just simply going to be bankrupt.
And I do believe that, that there are ways to look at, you know, what we're trying to do when we put Social Security in place? We didn't go back and review it. In other words, I believe in sunset provisions when we pass this kind of legislation, so that you take a look at it 10, 15 years down the road to make sure that it's still going to fund itself. Social Security will run out of money if we continue to do what we're doing, if we rob the trust fund, if we think that there's any money there -- there's not. But there are, there certainly are (inaudible) securities, banks, backed by the federal government.
However, Medicare is again going to go bankrupt if we don't change it. There've been recommendations of block grants, of our seniors looking at choosing what kinds of plans that they want. But I can tell you one thing I would not do, I would not vote on any rule or law that would take away the benefits that our seniors have today or those that are approaching retirement age. Because they're there, they're counting on those benefits. We have to find another way to pay for it other than impacting our seniors today, and I would not vote for anything that would do that.