Last week 50 House Republicans, led by Rep. Reid Ribble (R-WI), sent a letter to Speaker Boehner urging him to insist on Social Security benefit cuts as part of any deal to avert default. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) echoed this line: In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, he called on Republicans to seek cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as the price for not defaulting. He even called cutting these programs "the nation's biggest challenge."
Really? As our country suffers from historically high levels of income and wealth inequality, a half-decade of stagnant economic growth and intolerably high levels of un- and under-employment, an education system that is failing to prepare our children to compete in the 21st century economy, and a retirement income crisis that is projected to leave two-thirds of today's working-age households unable to maintain their living standards in retirement -- the country's "biggest challenge" is cutting the benefits Americans have earned through the Social Security system?
The Paul Ryan Republicans are now saying they created this month's artificial budget crisis primarily to achieve cuts to Social Security -- a program funded separately from the federal budget. As all working Americans know, Social Security is funded directly from the FICA contributions deducted from our paychecks, not from our income taxes. These FICA contributions go into a separate fund, the Social Security Trust Fund, from which our families receive modest monthly benefits - averaging about $1200/month - when we are unable to work due to old age, disability, or death. This money is legally "off-budget," i.e. not part of the federal budget. It has never contributed and can never contribute to the federal debt.
If cutting Social Security benefits is now the primary goal of the Republican shutdown/default crisis, this is patently absurd. It's also a deceitful shell game: Republicans first drove up the debt by cutting taxes ("starving the beast") and simultaneously ballooning military spending under President Reagan (debt rose 190 percent), and then did more of the same with two unfunded wars under George W. Bush (debt rose 86 percent). Now, under President Obama -- under whom the debt has risen 58 percent, mostly due to him taking office in depth of the Great Recession -- Republicans are suddenly earnestly concerned about debt. Rather than proposing to pay the bills they have run up, they proclaim the need to cut a program that has not contributed a penny to the debt in the past, and by law cannot do so in the future.
If Republicans were truly concerned with reducing our debt, they would have done so when they were in office. And they would be in favor of the Affordable Care Act, which the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office estimates will reduce, not increase, our deficits over the next two decades. Indeed, the ACA is our country's best chance at bending the cost curve on health care costs, the primary driver of our nation's long-term debt. Moreover, they would not now be seeking to repeal the medical device tax, whose repeal would increase the deficit by $30 billion over the next decade.
No, the Ryan Republicans who are now seeking to cut Social Security benefits or else sabotage our economy with government default, are not truly concerned with reducing our debt. They are concerned with cutting taxes on the wealthy and cutting the earned benefits of American workers.
In poll after poll, the American people, half of whom do not feel they will be financially prepared for retirement, express their opposition to Social Security cuts. Even if the House Republicans don't like Social Security, the American people very much do -- and they want more, not less of it. A recent survey by the National Academy of Social Insurance found that:
• 84 percent of Americans believe current Social Security benefits do not provide enough income for retirees;
• 75 percent believe we should consider raising future Social Security benefits in order to provide a more secure retirement for working Americans; and
• 82 percent agree it is critical to preserve Social Security for future generations even if it means increasing Social Security taxes paid by working Americans.
In short, House Republicans are making a grave miscalculation on Social Security. Now is the time for Democrats to stand firm, be true to the will of the American people, and defend what remains of Americans' retirement security.