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Sen. Johnson suggests ending Medicare, Social Security as mandatory spending programs

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 8/3/2022 Amy Wang
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on April 26 in Washington. (Bonnie Cash/Pool Photo via AP) Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) speaks during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on April 26 in Washington. (Bonnie Cash/Pool Photo via AP)

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) has suggested that Social Security and Medicare be eliminated as federal entitlement programs, and that they should instead become programs approved by Congress on an annual basis as discretionary spending.

Those who work in the United States pay Social Security and Medicare taxes that go into federal trust funds. Upon retirement, based on a person’s lifetime earnings and other factors, a retiree is eligible to receive monthly Social Security payments. Similarly, Medicare is the federal health insurance program that kicks in for people 65 and older, or for others who have disabilities.

In an interview that aired Tuesday on “The Regular Joe Show” podcast, Johnson, who is seeking a third term in the Senate, lamented that the Social Security and Medicare programs automatically grant benefits to those who meet the qualifications — that is, to those who had been paying into the system over their working life.

“If you qualify for the entitlement, you just get it no matter what the cost,” Johnson said. “And our problem in this country is that more than 70 percent of our federal budget, of our federal spending, is all mandatory spending. It’s on automatic pilot. It never — you just don’t do proper oversight. You don’t get in there and fix the programs going bankrupt. It’s just on automatic pilot.”

Johnson suggested that Social Security and Medicare be transformed into programs whose budgets are appropriated by Congress on an annual basis. He pointed out that budgets for the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments are approved as discretionary spending.

“What we ought to be doing is we ought to turn everything into discretionary spending so it’s all evaluated so that we can fix problems or fix programs that are broken, that are going to be going bankrupt,” Johnson said. “As long as things are on automatic pilot, we just continue to pile up debt.”

Johnson’s comments prompted criticism from the White House and from Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who said Democrats would fight any attempt by Republicans to “pull the rug out from under our seniors.”

“The junior senator from Wisconsin wants to put Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block,” Schumer told reporters Wednesday. “He has argued that the benefits which millions of Americans rely on every day shouldn’t be guaranteed, but should be subject to partisan infighting here in Washington. He would like to revoke the guarantee of Medicare and Social Security and make them discretionary. Well, you know what happens when we make things discretionary around here? All too often they get cut, or even eliminated. We don’t want to do that.”

A representative for Johnson’s office pushed back on the idea that Johnson wanted to eliminate Medicare or Social Security.

“The Senator’s point was that without fiscal discipline and oversight typically found with discretionary spending, Congress has allowed the guaranteed benefits for programs like Social Security and Medicare to be threatened,” Johnson spokeswoman Alexa Henning said in an email.

“This must be addressed by Congress taking its responsibilities seriously to ensure that seniors don’t need to question whether the programs they depend on remain solvent,” she added. “As he said, we need a process to save these programs and no one is doing anything to save them long term. We just continue piling up debt, mortgaging our children’s future, and putting these programs at risk.”

Asked Wednesday whether Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) would support such a plan, a representative for him pointed to his previous rejection of a proposal by Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) that would have similarly upended Social Security and Medicare. In March, Johnson said he supported “most” of Scott’s plan and called it “a positive thing.”

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“If we’re fortunate enough to have the majority next year, I’ll be the majority leader. I’ll decide in consultation with my members what to put on the floor,” McConnell told reporters in March. “Let me tell you what would not be a part of our agenda: We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years.”

Earlier this year, Johnson announced that he would seek reelection in November, despite a previous pledge to retire after two terms. He is widely expected to win his primary election next Tuesday.

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is running for the Democratic nomination for Senate, criticized his would-be opponent’s remarks on entitlement programs.

“Ron Johnson is threatening to cut Social Security and Medicare,” Barnes tweeted Tuesday. “~surprise surprise~ the self-serving, multimillionaire Senator is trying to strip working people of the Social Security and Medicare benefits they’ve earned over a lifetime of hard work.”

According to the nonprofit Population Reference Bureau, Wisconsin ranks 17th in the nation in the percentage of the population 65 and older.

This was not the first time Johnson has made news for a proposal that prompted even other Republicans to distance themselves. In March, Johnson said he wanted to see the GOP repeal the Affordable Care Act if his party won the White House and the House and Senate majorities in 2024, something Republicans failed to do the last time they had majorities in Washington.

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