Democrats and progressive advocacy groups are homing in on Speaker Mike Johnson’s (R-La.) past support for steep cuts to entitlements, as the new Speaker embraces a deficit commission that could spotlight the issue in the run-up to the 2024 election.
President Biden called out congressional Republicans during his State of the Union address for wanting to cut the program. While budget experts say Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security are unsustainable in their current form, most Republicans acknowledge the political risks of wanting to shrink benefits — but are also opposed to tax increases to bolster the programs.
Johnson’s fervent support for trillions of dollars in cuts during his time as chairman of the Republican Study Committee (RSC) could be a blueprint for GOP budgets if the party wins control of the government.
“The greatest threat to our national security is our nation’s debt,” Johnson said during his first speech in the House chamber after he was elected Speaker. “We know this is not going to be an easy task and tough decisions will have to be made, but the consequences if we don’t act now are unbearable.”
Johnson promised to establish a bipartisan debt commission “immediately,” and indicated at a press conference this past week that he was close to naming members.
The idea for a 16-member debt commission that would examine Social Security and Medicare solvency was initially floated by former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as part of debt limit negotiations.
Entitlements have long been a political third rail, but some in the GOP wanted to use the debt ceiling negotiations to extract promises to reduce entitlement spending.
Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid currently make up nearly half of the entire federal budget, with a total annual price tag of $2.7 trillion.
The commission’s recommendations would receive priority consideration by Congress. But they would be scheduled for a final vote during the lame-duck session immediately after the 2024 election, putting maximum distance between representatives and voters.
McCarthy’s proposal was slammed by the White House, though it was eventually included in a stopgap government funding bill introduced in September. The bill would have reduced discretionary spending for most domestic programs by nearly 30 percent.
“On top of breaking their promise to the country about keeping the government open, the House GOP is now threatening to single-handedly shut the American government down unless they can jam a death panel for Medicare and Social Security down the country’s throat,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a post at the time on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.
But that bill failed to advance amid House GOP infighting, and the commission was not included in the legislation that ultimately passed both chambers to keep the government funded through mid-November.
Still, Johnson is pushing ahead.
“I believe we’re going to have very thoughtful people on both sides of the aisle in both chambers come together and have some very productive discussions about that,” Johnson told reporters. “When I said I want to do it immediately, I meant that, and it’s a top priority right now.”
While Johnson said he doesn’t believe he should dictate objectives or benchmarks, Democrats and left-wing advocacy groups have said his record speaks for itself.
“Mike Johnson was one of the chief architects of trying to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election. Mike Johnson also wants to end Social Security and Medicare as we know it,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) said during a CNN interview after Johnson was elected.
“The kind of commission Johnson announced is designed to give Congress political cover for cutting Americans’ earned benefits,” Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, said in a statement Oct. 25 after Johnson was elected.
“It is unfortunate and disappointing that one of the Speaker’s first priorities is creating a mechanism intended to slash programs that American workers pay for in every paycheck, fully expecting the benefits to be there when they need them,” Richtman said.
Alex Lawson, executive director of Social Security Works, said he thinks President Biden learned important lessons from former President Obama trying to negotiate the debt limit with Republicans after they took control of the House in 2011 and forced a series of deep spending cuts.
“The fiscal cliff, the supercommittee, sequestration, all of those things were a disaster for President Obama’s ability to push his agenda,” Lawson said. “And I think you’ve seen that President Biden learned those lessons really well and understands that this is just a political trap by the Republicans to try to get Democrats to take the blame for Republicans’ long-standing policy of cutting and or destroying Social Security.”
As RSC chair in 2020, Johnson authored a budget that called for raising the Medicare and Social Security eligibility ages. It called for $2 trillion in cuts to Medicare and $750 billion in cuts to Social Security.
It also called for turning Medicare into a premium support program, where private plans compete alongside traditional Medicare. Instead of a guaranteed benefit, beneficiaries would use a voucher to buy coverage on either a private or Medicare plan.
Johnson’s past support for cutting spending on Medicare and Social Security is in line with longtime Republican dogma. GOP leaders in the past have hammered Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid as socialist initiatives — inefficient and anti-American — that threaten individual freedoms.
Earlier this year, the RSC — now chaired by Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.) — issued a budget proposal that called for gradually raising the Social Security retirement age to 69.
The RSC is the largest conservative bloc in the House, and it currently includes nearly 80 percent of all Republicans. But at least some members argue the group’s plans shouldn’t be taken seriously.
“RSC budgets have always been a joke. Period,” said Rep. Glenn Thompson (R-Pa.). “They’ve never been implemented.”
Aris Foley contributed reporting