Medicare and Social Security Are on the Rocks — And No Leader in Either Party Wants to Step Up

Social Security and Medicare reform were once top policy items for the country’s fiscal health officials. However, the growing political cost of discussing entitlement reform has prompted politicians to almost entirely drop the issue. 

“You just open yourself up to potshots,” said GOP Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana about pushing for entitlement reform. “Politically, it is a losing position.”

Cassidy holds a position on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions as the top Republican. This year he also was a leader in a bipartisan working group, working on a proposal to extend the life of Social Security. Current projections say it could become insolvent by 2033.

However, the senator says President Biden has made it clear he isn’t interested in any bipartisan proposals to ensure Social Security’s sustainability. 

“You have to have a president who’s engaged in order to accomplish any of this,” said Cassidy. “And if we have a president as we do now, who doesn’t want to do anything — Oh, he makes the right comments, but when you look at his proposals, they’re not serious — then there’s no reason to do anything.”

Former President Clinton took steps to extend Medicare’s life during his administration. Before that, his successor, former President George W. Bush, made reforms in Social Security a core pillar. When Obama was president, he also attempted to improve Social Security’s finances by changing some metrics for cost-of-living.

Cassidy now stands among the few on Capitol Hill calling for measures to extend the solvency of core entitlements, particularly Social Security. Accusations fueled by Democrats that Republicans wanted to gut Medicare and Social Security during debt limit negotiations were so widespread that Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy said they were off the table. 

Cassidy says Biden needs to take a reasonable approach to Social Security reform. 

“Biden came out in his State of the Union speech and didn’t speak about the proposal which had bipartisan support, which…we briefed his office on,” said Cassidy. “He came out at the State of Union didn’t speak on our bipartisan proposal, but rather on Rick Scott’s proposal, which Rick actually walked back from. So, you know, at that point, the politics were clear.” 

“He’s running for re-election,” said Cassidy. “He’s going to attack Republicans…and we’re not going to get his cooperation on our bipartisan proposal. Without the president at the table, you’re wasting your time.”

Cassidy also said that while president, Trump failed to pay any attention “at all” to the issue.

“Anybody who even talks about doing anything on Social Security, [Trump] begins to criticize them for cutting the program, allegedly cutting the program,” said Cassidy. 

“I just think it’s a difficult issues. You’ve got to be honest with the American people, so if there’s one person being dishonest, or in this case two people being dishonest, it’s really hard to push back on and say, well, we’ve always heard that social is going to go insolvent, it’s never happened,” said Cassidy. “Now it’s about nine years away.”

Entitlement and welfare reform has traditionally been conservative fiscal policy ideas

Welfare and entitlement reform have traditionally been central ideas to conservative fiscal policy. However, economists said the GOP was shifting away from those issues to match its major demographic shift around 2016.

“You can credit Trump with some of this, but it’s bringing blue-collar workers into the base of the Republican Party,” said Paul Winfree, former Trump administration economist and Americans for Prosperity advisory board member.

“And it’s this base that not only is more likely to be reliant on Social Security and Medicare in general, but they’re also more likely to be reliant on Social Security and Medicare today,” said Winfree. “And they just so happen to be the same folks who were in the prime of their working lives in the late 90s and the early 2000s.”

“Fast forward 20 years, when now they’re retiring, and they’re collecting Social Security, and they’re on the Medicare program. And now, all of the sudden, if you go to these folks and say, ‘Social Security and Medicare are unsustainable, and we need to reform them,’… their initial comments is, ‘Well, wait a minute. I remember when the budgets were balanced…Where did it go? What did you do with that money?”

Maya MacGuineas, of the bipartisan Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget believes that, like Senator Cassidy, a lack of decisive leadership on the top has stopped the most meaningful attempts at reform on both sides of the aisle. 

“Good policy isn’t good politics. What they’re finding is that promising things that aren’t possible or aren’t good for recipients still makes good politics, and you have both parties competing over that,” said MacGuineas. “Public opinion on these issues always follows leadership.”

“Unless you have leadership at the top that’s willing, to be honest…the public is understandably sacred about losing benefits that they depend on, and so you need a truth teller at the top,” she said.