Anyone who has followed American conservatism the past four decades knows the love-hate relationship conservatives have with Social Security and Medicare, if only because these represent costly, popular hallmarks of FDR’s New Deal initiatives from the Great Depression and Lyndon Johnson’s similarly inspired safety-net programs of the mid-1960s. No less than Ronald Reagan in 1961 blasted Medicare, still in its embryonic stages, and other “socialized medicine” as “a short step to all the rest of socialism.” Conservative ideologues celebrated President George W. Bush’s 2005 plan to reform Society Security through private retirement-savings accounts. Yet when push came to shove, Republicans in Congress balked at tinkering with a program their constituents — those past retirement age and those fast approaching it — considered sacred.
Which brings us not only to President Trump’s half-baked, quasi-legal executive order last month allowing for deferral of the 6.2 percent employee side of the payroll tax which funds Social Security (and which may now come due in one large, inconvenient lump sum; ouch!) but also his myopic vow to eliminate the payroll tax entirely if he’s re-elected. While we appreciate (but vigorously oppose) the new Republican principle of runaway deficit spending while cutting taxes, this latest Trump campaign pledge raises a disturbing truism and a relevant question: First, the Constitution (for which this president clearly has contempt) makes clear only Congress can permanently waive a federal tax, not the president. The question? If the entire payroll tax is abolished, how will Social Security and Medicare be funded? Is the Republican answer to pay for them through the general fund, already greatly financed through carefree deficit spending?
It’s a question the 70 million people who receive Social Security and Medicare sure ought to think hard about, especially if their private savings accounts fail to pass muster with what’s needed to live decently in retirement. If payroll taxes were entirely scrapped starting Jan. 1, 2021, Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund asset reserves would reportedly become permanently depleted by mid-2021; the ability to pay retirement benefits would end by mid-2023. While it’s unlikely Republicans or Democrats wishing to retain perches in Congress would vote for such a thing, it’s also relevant to note that this president, even more than the last, has shown an inclination to assume privileges strictly reserved to Congress by Article I. And some federal courts have been all too happy to bow to such unlawful constitutional transgressions so long as a Republican is doing the transgressing. All this makes for a life-or-death issue about which graying constituents should aggressively question Republicans running for the House and Senate; they’re Trump’s enablers, after all. Alas, Trump supporters would rather distract you with boat parades for the president; Democrats would rather distract you with Trump’s unsurprising disparaging of the U.S. military.
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