Feb 13, 2023

Republicans & Social Security.

U.S. Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) has released a controversial proposal for the economy. Image: Gage Skidmore
U.S. Senator Rick Scott (R-FL) has released a controversial proposal for the economy. Image: Gage Skidmore 

What do they really want to do?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

What are Republicans' actual plans for Social Security and Medicare? Plus, a question about that Seymour Hersh piece on the Nordstream pipeline.

RIP, Pierre.

Last week, I learned of the unexpected passing of Pierre Lipton, one of the founders of 1440 — a newsletter that we have partnered with repeatedly in Tangle. Pierre was young and brilliant, and incredibly generous with his time. Although he was my junior, I sought him out for advice regularly. On several occasions, he picked up the phone or met me for a beer when I was troubleshooting an email issue, struggling to make a major business decision, or unsure about the path forward. I was devastated to hear the news. I wanted to acknowledge his passing here, and say thank you to him in writing. He will be missed dearly. His family has set up a GoFundMe for some of the causes that he cared about.

East Palestine, Ohio.

This week, I'm working on a Friday edition about the train carrying hazardous materials that derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Given the size of our mailing list now, I suspect there might be some folks who live near there or know people who do. If that sounds like you, please write in and let me know — I'd love to hear some perspectives from people on the ground.

Quick hits.

  1. U.S. fighter jets have shot down three more unidentified flying objects since downing a Chinese spy balloon last week. One was in Alaskan airspace, the second was over northern Yukon in Canada, and the third was over Lake Huron near Canada. (The downings)
  2. On Sunday, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre announced President Joe Biden intends to run for re-election in 2024. (The comments)
  3. Sen. John Fetterman (D-PA) spent two days in the hospital after feeling lightheaded at a Senate Democrat retreat. Fetterman suffered a stroke last year shortly before winning his Senate primary. He was discharged on Friday. (The hospitalization)
  4. Rep. Angie Craig (D-MN) said she was assaulted in the elevator of her apartment building in Washington, D.C. There is no evidence that the attack was politically motivated. (The attack)
  5. The death toll from last week's twin earthquakes in Turkey and Syria has now passed 36,000. Survivors continue to be found in the wreckage. (The toll)

Today's topic.

Republicans and Social Security. During last week's State of the Union address, President Biden claimed that "some Republicans" want to sunset Social Security and Medicare, drawing boos and jeers from Republican members of Congress in attendance. In the week since, President Biden has escalated those attack lines, repeating the claims during public speeches in Florida. Republicans have continued to object, saying it's a "falsehood" that there are plans to get rid of Social Security or Medicare.

Reminder: Social Security is a benefits program that primarily serves retired Americans or those with disabilities. Working Americans pay into Social Security through payroll taxes that are deducted from their wages, and when they retire become eligible for a monthly stipend from the Social Security benefits program. In 2019, about one in five Americans were receiving a Social Security benefit. Last month, Social Security recipients began receiving an 8.7% cost of living increase to match inflation, bringing the average retiree benefit to $1,827 per month. Today, you can start receiving Social Security benefits as early as 62, although delaying your benefits until full retirement age can increase their amount. Most Americans' full retirement age for benefits is between 66 and 67 years old (depending on what year you were born).

Medicare is a federal government health insurance program for people aged 65 and older, as well as some younger people with certain illnesses or disabilities.

Together, Social Security and Medicare account for about one-third of federal spending. Medicare's trust fund is projected to run short by 2028, and Social Security is projected to run out of money by 2034. If Social Security were to run out of money, it would trigger a 25% cut in benefits.

Because they account for such a huge chunk of the budget, entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare are strong options for potential cuts to help balance the federal budget. In 1983, President Ronald Reagan and a Democratic Congress raised the retirement age to 67 and increased taxes to help shore up Social Security funding. In 2005, President George W. Bush proposed privatizing Social Security, but abandoned the plan after his approval ratings plummeted.

Social Security and Medicare are two of the most popular programs in the U.S., and deeply impact seniors — who are also the most reliable voters in elections. A recent Pew poll found that 79% of Americans said there should be no reduction in Social Security benefits. That has made it a "third rail" issue for many politicians, who avoid proposing drastic changes to either program.

President Biden has used a proposal from Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL), which calls for reauthorizing every federal program every five years, to claim Scott hopes to "sunset" Social Security and Medicare. Scott's plan has drawn rebukes from fellow Republicans, including House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who have both said Republicans will not try to cut or reform Social Security and Medicare during upcoming debt ceiling negotiations.

Today, we're going to take a look at some arguments about what Republicans really want to do with Social Security and Medicare, and how we should approach the programs. We'll look at some opinions from the left and right, then my take.

What the left is saying.

  • Some on the left criticize Republicans for their thirst to cut Social Security.
  • Others argue that we do need to reform Social Security and Medicare, and there are innovative bipartisan ideas worth looking at.
  • Some say Biden is accurately presenting the real positions of many Republicans.

In Bloomberg, Teresa Ghilarducci said Republicans are "too thirsty" for Social Security cuts.

"At President Joe Biden’s State of the Union Speech, congressional Republicans tried to distance themselves from plans to cut Social Security. Don’t believe it," she wrote. "Plenty of Republicans are determined to cut Social Security — even though 84% of Republicans and 86% of Democrats want those retirement benefits to increase. Things are already bad enough for retirees and older workers. Benefit cuts would only make them worse. Make no mistake: House Republicans want to take advantage of the debt limit vote due this spring to cut Social Security. That’s behind their proposal to create a commission to explore ways to trim Social Security costs. And last week, former Vice President Mike Pence said in a private meeting that the government should partially privatize the program — which will cut benefits for most families, including those who most rely on them.

"Now, poverty rates among older Americans are increasing just when tens of millions of boomers are reaching their early 60s and 70s. Americans age 55 to 64 now work significantly more hours per week than their peers in other wealthy nations," she said. "I expect House Republicans to pick up on the plan recently proposed by the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, a right-leaning Washington think tank. The CRFB would like to raise the Social Security retirement age to 70, which effectively acts as a benefit cut of about 13% to 15% for people forced out of work and into retirement way before age 70."

The Washington Post editorial board said Social Security and Medicare do need to be reformed — and soon.

"We applaud anyone in either party who works in good faith to help shore up the solvency of these old-age programs, whether or not they identify as fiscal hawks," the board said. "Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-La.) and Angus King (I-Maine) have reportedly been talking about creating some kind of sovereign wealth fund that would be separate from the Medicare trust fund but could create future cash flow. Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) has expressed openness to raising the taxable wage cap for the program and perhaps creating a 'supercommittee' to hash out a potential deal that could get an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor... These politicians take political risks to advance such ideas. Former president Donald Trump, who allowed the debt to grow by $7.8 trillion while he was in office, says that 'under no circumstances should Republicans vote to cut a single penny from Medicare or Social Security.'

"Meanwhile, President Biden savaged Republicans during the 2022 midterms for trying to 'deny seniors' the benefits he says they are owed. Conventional wisdom is that lawmakers will keep kicking the can down the road until a crisis arrives," the board said. "The potential trade-offs aren’t painless, but some mix of benefit reductions and tax increases is necessary. Think about raising the Medicare eligibility age to 67 to match the existing Social Security retirement age for those born in 1960 or later. Perhaps raise premiums for Medicare beneficiaries with higher incomes. And maybe reduce Social Security benefits for those with higher incomes. Many of the Trump tax cuts expire in 2025. This could be leverage to negotiate tweaks to the payroll tax."

In Slate, Jim Newell said Republicans are angry Joe Biden "accurately" described their plan to sunset Social Security.

"The 'some Republicans,' in this case, is one Rick Scott. In his 11-point plan, sub-point 7 of point 6 reads: 'All federal legislation sunsets in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again.' The plan doesn’t single out Medicare and Social Security specifically, but these are programs that were established by federal legislation and would thus disappear under Scott’s proposal unless renewed every five years," Newell wrote. "Plenty of Republicans, including chairs of important committees and caucuses in the House, have been muttering about using the debt limit to force changes to Medicare and Social Security. Even before the State of the Union, though, that was unlikely to be the path they pursued in negotiations. McCarthy, for one—and Donald Trump, for another—understands that holding the global economy hostage in order to extract cuts to Medicare and Social Security would be the dumbest move in history.

"They would lose the policy fight, and the political damage could cost them the 2024 election. In his remarks the day before the State of the Union, McCarthy said that 'cuts to Medicare and Social Security are off the table' for the debt-limit negotiations," Newell said. "The one saving grace for Rick Scott? If it hadn’t been his toxic plan Biden chose to highlight, it would have been someone else’s. There’s plenty of loose talk out there. It could have been Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson’s suggestion that mandatory spending programs be subjected to annual review. It could have been Utah Sen. Mike Lee’s 2010 vow to 'phase out Social Security, to pull it up from the roots and get rid of it.' Biden could simply have referenced Republicans’ efforts to cut Medicaid, a cornerstone of their 2017 Obamacare repeal plan, which quite nearly made it into law."

What the right is saying.

  • Many on the right say reforms are needed, even if Biden mischaracterized Republicans' position.
  • Some argue that no sitting Republicans are actually willing to change the programs, which is part of the problem.
  • Others say Biden is the one who has a long track record of wanting to reform or make cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

In The Wall Street Journal, Andrew Biggs suggested a cap on the maximum Social Security benefit would be a good step forward.

"Though vital to addressing the national debt, getting a comprehensive reform package—or any major entitlement reform—through Congress will be tough. Instead, lawmakers might consider a simple but meaningful start: capping the maximum retirement benefit," Biggs said. "A cap would put a dent in Social Security’s 75-year funding gap of more than $20 trillion and send a message that government benefits to high-income retirees can’t be unlimited. Social Security is often described as a safety net against poverty in old age. But if every senior simply received a benefit equal to the 2022 poverty threshold—just over $14,000 for a single retiree and about $17,600 for couples—Social Security’s $1.3 trillion annual cost for 2023 would be nearly cut in half.

"Social Security is expensive because it’s more than a safety net: The average new retiree in 2021 received an annual benefit of nearly $21,000, 1.5 times the poverty threshold without counting their own savings," he wrote. "And the highest-earning Americans receive even more than that, with the maximum benefit at the normal retirement age of 67 coming in at $42,238 in 2023. This blows through any reasonable idea of a safety net: It’s more than three times the federal poverty threshold and about 5% higher than the median employee’s salary in the U.S. It’s also two to three times higher than the maximum benefit paid in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand."

In The Washington Examiner, Tiana Lowe said Biden must reform Social Security if he won't stand for benefit cuts.

"Not only is Biden arguing against a straw man here — sadly, no sitting Republicans actually are pledging to cut entitlements — he is also forgetting that doing nothing is tantamount to a massive cut of Social Security benefits! Absent a major reform from Social Security, the program will become insolvent in a little more than a decade," she wrote. "Upon insolvency, benefits will be slashed by 20% to 25% across the board. It's not as though the GOP's fealty to entitlements is laudable in any way. If Republicans wish to balance the budget within the decade without touching entitlements or defense spending, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget projects Congress would need to slash 85% of the rest of the budget.

"Could tax hikes fill in the void of the Social Security Trust Fund once insolvency hits? Maybe — if Democrats and Republicans were comfortable with jacking up the payroll tax by 25%. The only solution to prevent the legally mandated benefit cuts of Social Security after its insolvency is meaningful reform," she said. "Biden's demagoguery on the issue is rank dishonesty, and the Republicans playing along with his priorities are just as shameful."

In The Federalist, Christopher Jacobs said Joe Biden has tried to cut Social Security and Medicare several times.

"When the president attacked lawmakers who 'want Medicare and Social Security to sunset,' he should have begun by using the perpendicular pronoun. In July 1975, then-Senator Biden proposed legislation to terminate 'all provisions of law in effect on the effective date of this Act which authorize new budget authority for a period of more than four fiscal years.' ... Similarly, when Biden claimed that 'if anyone tries to cut Social Security [and Medicare], I will stop them,' he omitted his long history of supporting proposals reducing spending on these programs. In spring 1984, Biden, along with Sens. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Nancy Landon Kassebaum, R-Kansas, proposed an across-the-board freeze on federal spending," Jacobs wrote. "The bill would have eliminated all cost-of-living increases in federal employee pay, as well as Social Security and Medicare benefits, for fiscal year 1985. In a joint Washington Post op-ed, Biden and three other senators claimed they supported the freeze because 'federal deficits are a clear and present danger to our economic recovery.'

"Voters should find Biden’s behavior disqualifying, and not just because he takes the public for fools. The Medicare trustees, all members of Biden’s own administration, state that the program’s Hospital Insurance Trust Fund will become insolvent in 2028," he said. "But Biden has yet to release any plan to avoid an insolvency scenario projected for his potential second term. Ironically enough, Biden’s earlier proposals to regularly review spending programs and freeze federal spending across-the-board represent possible solutions to tackle our $31 trillion in accumulated debt. But making difficult choices requires a level of forthrightness lacking from a president utterly beholden to his party’s radicalized left."

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. You can reply to this email and write in. If you're a subscriber, you can also leave a comment.

  • Let's start by admitting that what we have right now is not sustainable, and some changes are a must.
  • I think there are a lot of very sensible arguments for raising the retirement age.
  • I'm intrigued by new funding proposals, like the ones reportedly being fleshed out by Sens. Cassidy and King.  

After the State of the Union address, we fact-checked many of Biden's claims from his speech. I gave his claim that some Republicans want to "sunset" Medicare and Social Security a "misleading" rating.

Biden is right that Sen. Rick Scott, one Republican, has released a proposal to reauthorize or remove all federal legislation every five years, but that proposal has been widely rebuked by the party. Biden also said "my Republican friends want to take the economy hostage" as part of proposing changes to Social Security, which seemed to imply this was part of the debt ceiling standoff. But Scott never said the proposal should be pushed during the debt ceiling showdown, and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has ruled out using the debt ceiling to force entitlement reform. Hence, "misleading" — but not entirely “false.”

It is true that there are proposals out there to reform both programs. But those proposals aren't just coming from Republicans – they're coming from liberals, including (as seen above) The Washington Post editorial board. Anyone who is willing to engage honestly on the issue can see both Social Security and Medicare are barrelling toward insolvency, which would result in the drastic cuts both sides of the aisle say they want to prevent. Even President Barack Obama made this clear in 2011 (emphasis mine), when he said: “If you look at the numbers, then Medicare in particular will run out of money, and we will not be able to sustain that program no matter how much taxes go up.”

I loved the point Tiana Lowe made in her Washington Examiner piece, which was essentially that doing nothing is a cut of its own. Perhaps the worst cut of all. If either program runs out of money, there will be dire consequences, and there's very little sign that we can prevent that from happening without major reforms.

Obviously, some people consider raising the age of Social Security or Medicare eligibility a "cut," since it would remove some people's eligibility. But to me, there are some strong arguments for an age increase to be a part of any attempt to reform the programs.

One reason is that life expectancy has been on a long-term upward trajectory, which means social security will have to cover increasing years of life for more retired individuals. In 2010, the Urban Institute estimated that the full retirement age would have to increase to 73 for adults to have the same number of ‘benefit years’ remaining in life today as they did in 1940. That number seems likely to increase in the next decade. At the same time, more Americans are retiring earlier and taking benefits sooner. Through a lot of lenses, both of these things — earlier retirement and living longer — are clearly good things. But they create big problems from a budgetary perspective, and they aren't problems we can solve easily.

There are other good arguments, too: Older Americans are in better health now than ever, they are working less physically stressful jobs, and more of them have college degrees — which makes finding physically tolerable work, even part-time, a lot easier.

Still, bumping the retirement age up a couple years won't solve the problem on its own. That step should also come with improvements to the disability social safety net, which means some kind of cost-benefit tradeoff. This is the kind of bargain Democrats and Republicans may actually be able to make together, though there doesn’t seem to be nearly enough action on it right now.

I'll confess I’m intrigued by the whispers of a deal between Sens. Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Angus King (I-ME) to create a new fund of borrowed money, invested into stocks, that could cover future benefits. It's not an entirely new proposal, and there are some strong arguments both for and against it. Republicans who oppose the plan make the case that it would rely on the government making smart investments in the stock market, while others worry about the federal ownership of private industry. Still, innovation here shouldn't be shunned, and new financing tactics that don't remove health insurance or benefits for millions deserve to be received with open minds. If or when an actual proposal is made public, I’ll be one of many folks eager to examine its potential efficacy.

For now, both sides should start with the simple step of admitting the problem: Neither program can continue on as is, and we’ll be a lot better off if we find a solution before the crisis actually arrives at our feet.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Isaac, did you see this story about the Nord Stream pipeline? Think you'll cover this one?

— Andy from New York

Tangle: Yes, I did. In fact, I referenced it in our Friday edition piece where we revisited the Trump-Russia story and the media's coverage of it.

For the unaware: The story is a Substack piece by Seymour Hersh, a well known and award-winning investigative journalist, alleging that the United States was behind the attack on the Nord Stream pipeline, which we covered last year. As I said on Friday, the piece is thinly sourced, with what appears to be just one anonymous person behind it. I also noted that Hersh, now 85, has taken a lot of heat for some of the journalism he has done in the last decade. Some of his pieces have had major flaws, and he's been accused of putting out some shoddy writing.

I asked one of my sources in the oil industry if the piece was making any waves in his world, and he responded, "Waves of mockery and eye rolls."

That being said, I've noted from the beginning that I thought it was plausible the U.S. was involved, and at the very least I hope Hersh's piece kicks up some more investigation. If he got someone to talk for the story, other journalists could, too. And given we still don't have an answer, I don't think we can totally ignore his very detailed account.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

Moldova's President Maia Sandu has alleged that Russia is trying to topple her country's leadership using foreign saboteurs. Moldova is a tiny nation on the southwestern border of Ukraine. Last week, its pro-Western government resigned after months of economic turmoil and the spillover effects of the war. Sandu accepted the resignation of the prime minister, and now says Russia is trying to execute a plan to keep Moldova from joining the European Union. Ukrainian President Volodmyr Zelensky has also alleged intelligence revealing a plan for "the destruction" of Moldova. Sandu says the plan involves citizens of Russia, Montenegro, Belarus and Serbia attempting to spark protests to "change the legitimate government to an illegal government controlled by the Russian Federation." Reuters has the story.


  • 48.6 million. The number of retired workers who will receive Social Security benefits in 2023.
  • 7.6 million. The number of disabled workers who will receive Social Security benefits in 2023.
  • 5.9 million. The number of survivors of deceased workers who will receive Social Security benefits in 2023.
  • 9 out of 10. The number of people aged 65 and older receiving a Social Security benefit, as of December 31, 2022.
  • 30%. The estimated percentage of income that Social Security accounts for among the elderly.
  • 58 million. The number of Americans 65 and older in 2022.
  • 76 million. The estimated number of Americans who’ll be 65 and older in 2035.

The extras.

  • One year ago today, we didn't publish a newsletter, but I had just written about how media bias works.
  • The most clicked link in Thursday's newsletter: The Republican House probe of Twitter's decision to block the Hunter Biden story.
  • Colorado river: 47% of readers said they wanted us to cover the Colorado river water fight at some point, the most of any potential topic.
  • One non-political story: Eagles cornerback James Bradberry admitting "it was a hold" when asked about the controversial Super Bowl call.
  • Today's survey: Should Congress raise the retirement age for Social Security? Let us know.

Have a nice day.

A Minnesota teenager is getting national praise for becoming the opposite of a "screenager." Isaac (great name) Ortman has slept in his backyard for more than 1,000 nights. His outdoor journey began after the 14-year-old's father suggested he sleep outside for the weekend in the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic as something new to do instead of being stuck indoors. After two nights camping, the Boy Scout to see if he could do it for an entire year. 1,000 days later, he is still outside almost every night. I'm not out there to beat any world record," he said. "I'm just here having fun in my backyard." He managed to tough it out through one night that was 38 degrees below zero in his Duluth, Minnesota hometown. "If he had one wish right now, it would be for the president to ask him to camp out on the White House lawn," Isaac's dad said. "Wouldn't that be neat? It would be a feel-good story for the nation." Here's hoping. TODAY has the story.  

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