State of the Union brings brief unanimity on Social Security, Medicare. Why experts say there’s still reason to worry

Personal Finance

President Joe Biden delivers the State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Feb. 7, 2023
Pool | Getty Images

President Joe Biden used his State of the Union speech on Tuesday to get rare unanimity among Democrats and Republicans on one key issue: protecting Social Security and Medicare.

For now, it seems as though both parties have agreed to leave the programs untouched amid debt ceiling negotiations.

During the State of the Union speech, Biden called out “some Republicans” who want “Medicare and Social Security to sunset,” a comment that was met with boos from members of the GOP.

“So folks, as we all apparently agree, Social Security and Medicare is off the books now, right?” Biden said, in reference to the debt ceiling negotiations, which was met with cheers. “We’ve got unanimity.”

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Biden then took that further to get both parties to swear off any cuts to the programs.

“So tonight, let’s all agree — and we apparently are — let’s stand up for seniors,” Biden said. “Stand up and show them we will not cut Social Security. We will not cut Medicare.”

It was a “brilliant” moment, according to Max Richtman, president and CEO of the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

“He had everybody in the Congress, both sides of the aisle on their feet agreeing to protect Social Security and Medicare,” Richtman said.

But it will take more to reassure advocates for expanding the program who are staunchly opposed to any cuts.

“Does that mean we don’t have anything to worry about?” Richtman said. “Not by a long shot.”

Shai Akabas, director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said it was disappointing to see a consensus around not changing the programs when they are facing significant financial challenges that urgently need to be addressed.

“We really need our leaders to put everything on the table and not put red lines about what they’re refusing to do,” Akabas said.

“Ultimately, any solution is going to take compromise and bipartisanship,” he added.

Republicans float ways to rein in spending

Biden’s suggestion that Republicans want to sunset Social Security may have drawn jeers from one side of the aisle during Tuesday’s speech but it was based on GOP plans the president has previously mentioned.

Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., has proposed a “Rescue America” plan that called for sunsetting federal programs every five years to allow for Congress to revisit them. That would include Social Security and Medicare.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., had called for renewing the programs every year.

Ultimately, any solution is going to take compromise and bipartisanship.
Shai Akabas
director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center

Both lawmakers have denied they are trying to weaken the programs.

The Republican Study Budget Committee, which included a host of House GOP leaders, has also suggested other changes — raising the retirement ages for both Social Security and Medicare, as well as changing the measurement for annual Social Security cost-of-living adjustments.

None of those plans have been formally introduced as legislation.

More recently, former Vice President Mike Pence called for reforming Social Security with the creation of private savings accounts.

Democrats want high earners to pay more payroll taxes

Democrats have pushed for reform that would make Social Security benefits more generous while shoring up the program with additional payroll taxes on the wealthy.

Currently, payroll taxes are capped at $160,200 in wages.

Democratic proposals have called for reapplying those levies for higher wage earners.

Sens. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., have led a proposal to reapply those taxes for all income over $250,000, while also taxing investment and business income. In exchange, the plan would increase benefits by $2,400 per year and extend the program’s solvency for 75 years.

Rep. John Larson, D-Conn., has led a House bill that would apply reapply payroll taxes on $400,000 in earnings while also making benefits more generous. However, that plan would extend the program’s solvency for a shorter time, with estimates having indicated about five years.

Biden similarly proposed expanding benefits and increasing payroll taxes on high earners during his presidential campaign.

‘Substantive policy reforms’ unlikely – for now

It is now up to Congress to agree to raise or eliminate the debt ceiling to prevent an unprecedented default on the country’s debt.

“It’s unlikely that we’re going to get substantive policy reforms to either Social Security or Medicare as part of the debt limit debate based on where the two parties are positioned right now,” Akabas said.

But a bipartisan proposal called the TRUST Act could be included in a deal, Akabas said.

The bill calls for the formation of small bipartisan commissions to come up with solutions to address the country’s ailing trust funds — funding for Social Security, Medicare Part A and the nation’s highways — that may be fast-tracked.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, walks through the Senate Subway on Capitol Hill.
Elizabeth Frantz | Reuters

The idea of forming commissions has proven divisive. A White House spokesman recently labeled the idea as a “death panel” while others insist it is a path to creating a bipartisan plan.

Commissions may end up reducing benefits, Richtman said, while circumventing regular order, including the committee hearings that allow advocacy groups like his to be heard.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, who proposed the TRUST Act, recently tweeted that without action, Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries may see cuts.

“If you’re against a *process* to even talk about possible solutions, you’re not serious about saving these programs,” Romney tweeted.

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