Advocates for seniors and the middle class have been warning for weeks that the Republican drive to cut taxes for the wealthy is the prelude to a larger attack on Social Security and Medicare.
In a videotaped interview with two Politico reporters Wednesday, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said the quiet parts out loud. Asked by interviewers Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman how to address the federal deficit, he replied: “We have to do two things. We have to generate economic growth which generates revenue, while reducing spending. That will mean instituting structural changes to Social Security and Medicare for the future.” (A video of Rubio’s appearance is here, with his remarks on Social Security and Medicare beginning at the 21:45 mark.)
The only thing that’s new here is the explicit admission by a Republican officeholder that this is the GOP’s master plan to eviscerate the welfare and retirement of American workers. Budget analysts have seen it coming with all the subtlety of a freight train. As we reported earlier this month, the damage begins with the so-called Paygo law (for “pay as you go”), which requires Congress to offset any increase in the federal deficit with spending cuts. The law limits Medicare cuts to 4% of its budget per year, or $25 billion of its $625-billion budget. Because the tax cut proposals the Senate was preparing to vote on late Friday would expand the deficit by about $1.5 trillion over 10 years, it’s likely to trigger the cuts.
But $25 billion a year is a drastic cut that “would undermine the delivery of care to the 57 million seniors and disabled Americans who depend on the program,” Max Richtman, head of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said a couple of weeks ago.
The progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities observed that the Senate’s plan, which would add $1.5 trillion to the deficit over 10 years, would “create pressure for future cuts.” That’s confirmed by Rubio’s remarks to Palmer and Sherman.
Asked to justify the deficit increase caused by the proposed tax cuts, Rubio replied, “The argument would be, ‘We can’t cut taxes because that would drive up the deficit.’ That assumes that somehow we can fix the deficit through higher taxes, and we can’t.”
“Right,” Sherman interjected.
Actually, the proper response would have been “Wrong.” If a tax cut can generate a deficit of $1.5 trillion, then plainly the federal deficit is sensitive to tax revenues. The root of today’s deficit is the sharp run-up in federal spending that began under George W. Bush, without a commensurate tax increase.
Rubio delivered his statements in full earnest-wonk mode, all but shaking his head in regret at the painful reality he claimed to be outlining. But his demeanor concealed that he was blowing smoke. His prescription involves two options — generating economic growth and cutting spending. Actually, there are three options — raising taxes is the third. And both of the others are less cut and dried than Rubio suggests. For one thing, economic growth at the moment is near a recent historical high; most serious economists don’t expect the GOP’s tax cuts for the rich and for corporations to have any significant further impact.
For another, even if one is cutting spending, that leaves open the question: which spending? Rubio’s argument that it has to be through cuts to Social Security and Medicare is GOP doctrine because it strikes at the middle and working classes and leaves the wealthy alone, cradling their huge tax cuts.
“The driver of our debt is the structure of Social Security and Medicare for future beneficiaries,” Rubio said. Also wrong. The driver of the $1.5-trillion deficit over the next 10 years would be the Republican tax cuts, if they’re enacted.
“We still have time to responsibly structure those programs,” he said of Social Security and Medicare, “in a way that doesn’t impact current retirees or people about to retire, but in a way that would probably impact it for me and people younger than me.” (He’s 46.) This could be done “in ways you wouldn’t really notice and wouldn’t really object to.”
No one should be fooled by this argument. Rubio is pursuing the classic strategy of the enemies of social insurance programs to make them increasingly irrelevant to future generations by promising cuts that the affected beneficiaries “wouldn’t really notice.” This only eases the path toward eliminating those programs outright.