Top officials in the Republican Party have suggested in recent days that they will pursue major entitlement reform following the likely passage of massive tax cuts in the near future.
Those officials, House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), have been egged on by their party’s grassroots, which is seeking to capitalize on the party’s legislative momentum in an attempt to alter Medicare and Social Security.
“Many, including Speaker Ryan, realize that this is a challenge that has to be addressed sooner rather than later,” Jason Pye, Vice President of Legislative Affairs at FreedomWorks told The Daily Beast. “Cuts to discretionary spending are always welcome, but this represents around 25 percent of outlays over the next ten years. Mandatory spending, including entitlements and earned entitlements, is around 65 percent of outlays."
Efforts to revamp both Medicare and Social Security, two of America’s bedrock entitlement programs, have been undertaken in the past. And those who have done it—from Democratic administrations to Republicans—have either failed or suffered politically when they’ve succeeded.
For that reasons, other key figures within the conservative movement have urged leadership to proceed with caution, avoid entitlement reform entirely, or pursue more broadly-defined welfare reform instead.
“Medicaid, welfare and food stamps,” could be targets of block-granting or conservative-minded reform, famed anti-tax advocate Grover Norquist told The Daily Beast. “There may be a couple other things along those lines. But off the table is Social Security and Medicare. To mesh those together is the Democrat ploy because Americans believe ‘I pay for my Social Security and my Medicare.’ You can't go back and tell them, ‘actually we lied to you.’ So, those things are off the table.”
Complicating the legislative choices congressional GOP leaders face are a variety of procedural hurdles and political calculations. Senate budget rules dictate that only certain pieces of legislation can be passed on a simple majority vote—and Social Security does not fall within those rules.
But electoral considerations may present a bigger obstacle. President Donald Trump has repeatedly vowed that he has no plans or designs to touch Medicare or Social Security. He has been openly critical of past Republican efforts—including those undertaken by Ryan—to do so.
And for good reason. Republicans suffered massive midterm losses following George W. Bush’s failed attempt at Social Security privatization in 2005. Barack Obama reduced Medicare expenditures by hundreds of billions of dollars as part of Obamacare, which Republicans effectively branded as a Medicare “cut” in the 2010 midterms.
One plugged-in GOP lobbyist told The Daily Beast that the expectation on K Street was that Trump would instead pursue a major infrastructure bill in 2018 in part because it would better position the party for the 2018 elections.
“I personally think they will pivot to infrastructure in desperate attempt to win support before midterms,” the lobbyists said.
Infrastructure reform carries its own set of complications, not least of which is that GOP leadership outside of Trump doesn’t seem particularly enamored with the idea. And while it may prove more popular a pursuit, other Republicans ascribe to the notion that when your party has a majority in both chambers of Congress, you use it.
"It seems consistent with long-held Republican concerns — which ought to be bipartisan, but too rarely are — that these life-saving programs that the American people rely on are not sustainable in their current form,” Michael Steel, a former top House GOP aide, said of Medicare and Social Security. “It's politically easy to ignore reality, which is why Washington Democrats and their fellow travelers tend to demagogue this issue shamelessly."
Ryan has not spoke of entitlement reform in political terms. Instead, he’s talked about the need to pursue it as a means of exhibiting fiscal conservatism. "We're going to have to get back next year at entitlement reform, which is how you tackle the debt and the deficit," Ryan said during a radio appearance. The Speaker has also stated that he has begun to convince the president of the necessity of going down this route.
Democrats have been blown away by what they see as political chutzpah. And they’ve warned repeatedly that the forthcoming tax cut bill, which will add an estimated $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion to the nation’s debt over ten years time, is merely a predicate for gutting the social safety net in the upcoming year.
“I have not the slightest doubt as I have said before, that after the Republicans pass this huge tax giveaway to the wealthy and large corporations, they will be back on the floor of the Senate,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) said on the Senate floor last week. “And when they come back, they'll say, 'oh, my goodness, the deficit is too high. We have got to cut social security, Medicare, Medicaid, education, and nutritional programs.'”