Biden outmaneuvers Republicans on Social Security and Medicare – for now

Joe Biden sometimes surprises me. I never had a high opinion of him, seeing him as epitomizing the neoliberal centrism of the political establishment, a caretaker of the status quo and an appeaser of the right wing. My support of him during the last election was driven by my horror at the thought of the lying, grifting, narcissist Donald Trump getting to be president for another four years. But I must admit that Biden has done better than I expected. True, he is no Bernie Sanders when it comes to advancing progressive policies but he has managed to push through some important pieces of legislation in his first two years that have made real improvements in the lives of ordinary people.

A big test is the one that will occur this June or so when failure to raise the debt ceiling will reach a crisis point. Republicans were clearly planning to use that issue as a hostage to obtain cuts in spending. What cuts? They refuse to specify but their target has always been programs that benefit those who are in need. (For a list of the programs that they are likely targeting, see here.) But their main target has always been the Big Three: Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. These programs are expensive but extremely popular and cutting them will cause a backlash. Republicans know this and thus they seek to create a crisis so that cuts to them will be seen as inevitable and have Democrats share at least part of the blame.

But in the opening maneuvers, Biden seems to have gained an advantage. In his State of the Union speech, he needled the Republicans in Congress into loudly opposing cuts in those programs and even after that he continued to pummel them on this issue in speeches, forcing Republican senator Rick Scott, who had proposed sunsetting all programs after five years and requiring them to be reauthorized, to grudgingly backtrack, saying that when he meant ‘all programs’ he had actually meant to exclude Social Security, Medicare, defense, veterans benefits, and “other essential services”.

The White House wasted no time in gloating over the reversal.

“We congratulate Senator Scott on joining the post-State of the Union red wave of Republicans acknowledging that they have, in fact, been attempting to put Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block. For the past year he has explained the absence of an exception by saying, ‘If it’s worth keeping, we’re going to keep it.’” White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates said in a statement.

“But make no mistake, his true colors are undeniable and on the record. Cutting Medicare and Social Security benefits is a longstanding passion of Senator Scott’s, as it is for the majority of House Republicans who comprise the Republican Study Committee and many of his Senate colleagues, ranging from John Thune to Ron Johnson … We thank Senator Scott for continuing to share his heart with the world. We always support him doing so,” Bates added.

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have pointed out that there is no problem that minor tweaks could not fix and they seized this moment to propose expanding the benefits while maintaining the solvency of the programs.

Under the terms of the bill, current Social Security recipients or those who turn 62 in 2023 would receive an extra $200 in each monthly check, or a boost of $2,400 a year.

The average Social Security recipient currently receives about $1688 a month.

“At a time when nearly half of older Americans have no retirement savings and almost 50 percent of our nation’s seniors are trying to survive on an income of less than $25,000 a year, our job is not to cut Social Security,” Sanders said in a statement. “Our job is to expand Social Security so that every senior in America can retire with the dignity that they deserve and every person with a disability can live with the security they need.”

The increases would be funded by raising in the cap on earnings eligible for Social Security taxation. Currently, up to $162,000 in income is taxed for Social Security, anything over that is free from the tax. The legislation would lift this cap and subject all income above $250,000 to the Social Security payroll tax.

A fact sheet for the bill said the changes would ensure Social Security is fully funded for the next 75 years without raising taxes for more than 93% of American households that make $250,000 or less.

Due to the current cap on the Social Security payroll tax, millionaires have already reached the maximum and have stopped paying any tax on their income.

On Tuesday [February 28], not even two full months into 2023, millionaires will stop paying into Social Security for the rest of the year thanks to a cap on taxable income that progressive campaigners and lawmakers want to raise—or eliminate completely.

“The vast majority of workers are paid less than $160,200 per year, so they pay the 6.2% Social Security payroll tax on all of the paychecks they receive in 2023,” CEPR’s Sarah Rawlins wrote Tuesday. “But workers who earn over $160,200 pay no tax on their earnings above this level. For a millionaire, only about 1% or less of their total earnings go to supporting Social Security.”

“Despite earning much more than the average worker, a millionaire’s effective tax rate is far lower than the average worker’s,” Rawlins added. “As a result, the burden of supporting Social Security falls most heavily on working-class and middle-class people.”

Social Security’s payroll cap has long been a target of progressive lawmakers who argue that the program’s finances can easily be solidified for the next 70 years by ensuring that the rich contribute a more equitable portion of their income.

Earlier this month, as congressional Republicans weighed schemes to cut benefits, Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts introduced legislation that would increase Social Security’s modest payments by making all income above $250,000 subject to the payroll tax.

Donald Trump has complicated the picture for Republicans by coming out in opposition to cuts in Social Security, realizing how toxic that idea is among the older demographic that forms a substantial part of his base. You can be sure that he will wield that like a cudgel against his Republican opponents in the primaries since many of them like Ron DeSantis and Mike Pence have been on record in calling for cuts.

While the GOP once more actively pushed for changing both programs’ benefits, Trump has separated the party into two distinct camps as he attacks Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis as a “wheelchair over the cliff kind of guy” for supporting a congressional budget that alters Medicare. Both Republican camps and even some Democrats agree that Trump’s moves are politically effective. But some GOP members are angry to see their party freshly divided over fiscal austerity.

Trump’s pugnacious messaging comes at a crossroads for the party internally, as a group of senators quietly meets about possible changes to endorse on Medicare and Social Security. And Trump’s tactics have some Republicans clamming up or endorsing more modest ideas aimed at ensuring the programs don’t go bankrupt, despite projections that both may be headed for insolvency in about a decade.

That last sentence is what infuriates me because people think that the system is on the verge of bankruptcy. There is a LOT of misinformation put out by the right about Social Security, trying to scare people into thinking that the system faces a deep funding crisis and statements like the one above about ‘insolvency’ only feed that misconception. Back in 2008, I took a deep dive into this issue and wrote a seven-part series of blog posts titled The phony Social Security crisis to show that it is NOT is crisis at all and that small tweaks can fix it.


  1. sonofrojblake says

    [Biden] is no Bernie Sanders

    I dislike that characterisation. Biden is indeed “no Bernie Sanders”, in that rather than snipe from the sidelines and talk about all the great things he’d do if he had the power, he HAS the power and has to deliver, against all the difficulties actual power involves. And as you point out, he turns out to be delivering rather more than even people who supported him had thought he would. Sniping that he’s not as good as someone he beat to the top job seems needlessly churlish, especially in a post written ostensibly to praise him.

    Tony Blair was no Michael Foot, thank Bod. It always frustrates me that people on the left seem to prefer arguing about “purity” over actual power, with the practical outcome that the right end up with the power, because they can (usually) stop stabbing each other in the back long enough to get into office. (Note: that last observation does NOT apply to the British Conservative party for the last year or so…)

  2. Deepak Shetty says

    He is no Bernie Sanders

    I think Sanders overpromises what he can deliver , given the current state of the Democratic party (And supreme court and composition of house/senate). But i also think that Sanders/Biden is something that we also run into software -- people who promise 2 things and deliver 3 are rated higher than those who promise 10 and deliver 5.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    What has Sanders delivered as president? So far he’s on “promise 100, deliver zero”.

  4. Deepak Shetty says

    Because of course, only presidents deliver stuff.
    Many people now recognise corporations like Amazon as a problem because of people like Sanders. Time will tell whether that fizzles out or builds into an effective movement.

  5. xohjoh2n says


    (Note: that last observation does NOT apply to the British Conservative party for the last year or so…)

    Ha! Just you wait until election season really hots up and the Tories suddenly gel and look all professional and Labour collapse into their usual pile of unelectable infighting and desperate-looking straw-grabbing.

  6. Holms says

    Biden is indeed “no Bernie Sanders”, in that [he became president]

    It’s beyond obvious that this is not what Mano meant and you are just choosing to be contrarian.

  7. sonofrojblake says

    @7: tell me you didn’t understand my point without telling me you didn’t understand my point.

  8. Holms says

    No misunderstanding here. Mano compared Sanders and Biden in terms of their stated politics, you compared them in terms of who won. So, your usual routine.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    you compared them in terms of who won

    Tell me again you didn’t understand my point while indignantly denying you didn’t understand my point.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    A useful point of comparison for the hard of thinking is the current President for Global Affairs at Meta, Nick Clegg. In the 00s he was leader of the UK Liberal Democrats, the third largest party in parliament. Like every other leader of that party before him, and like Bernie Sanders, he talked a good game, and could afford to because there was never any realistic prospect of his party actually winning an election and no danger of him having to actually try to deliver on any of his outlandish promises. On that basis, his party went into the 2010 general election on a platform that, if elected, they would entirely abolish the system whereby university students were required to pay £3,000 a year in tuition fees -- an extremely popular policy among the Lib Dems target audience of wet hand-wringing guilt-ridden toffs. He appeared in the new-fangled TV debates, and the Labour and Tory leaders made headlines and fools of themselves for repeatedly having to say “I agree with Nick”. Everyone loved him, and he clearly revelled in it.

    But then the nightmare scenario manifested: a hung parliament. Neither the incumbent Labour party nor the opposition Conservative party had enough seats to form a government, and the Lib Dems held the balance of power. They effectively had the choice of who to crown Prime Minister, and Clegg chose David Cameron and the Conservative party to go into coalition with. He was rewarded with the post of Deputy Prime Minister and several prominent Lib Dems were elevated to the cabinet. This was a disaster, because now the Lib Dems had actual power and nowhere to hide.

    It wasn’t long before the new government turned its attention to the vexed question of university tuition fees, and Clegg found himself in a position whereby he had to either hold to his principles and defend the policy on which he’d been elected… or side with the evil Tories and vote not only not to abolish fees, but TRIPLE them. I don’t need to tell you which one he went with.

    The result was, after five years of fragile coaltion, in the next general election the Lib Dems were gratifyingly comprehensively wiped out. Disappointingly the Tories were not, because Cameron was a superior politician and Labour were still in disarray. The Tories came to power with a solid majority, and Cameron made a shrewd calculation that with that mandate he could now once and for all shut the loony right of his party up by giving them what they wanted -- a referendum on leaving the EU, which of course would be won by “Remain” because no serious politician would back Leave. And indeed no serious politician did back Leave -- Alexander Johnson saw his chance to become Prime Minister, and stabbed Cameron in the back by fronting the Leave campaign. Cameron (and everyone else in the UK who isn’t a millionaire) lost, May became placeholder PM for a bit until Johnson was ready to stab her too, and we had a situation where I was able to say “worst Prime Minister of my lifetime” three times in a row, and indeed “worst Prime Minister in history” twice. (Sunak is an evil Tory, but he’s bush league compared to the trifecta of faeces that preceded him).

    All of which was, ultimately, down to Nick fucking Clegg and his band of comfortable well meaning useful idiots. And how was he punished for ruining his country? With a top job at Facebook.

    The point I’m labouring here is that it is extremely easy to be popular and to talk about what you’d do with power, especially, like Sanders and all other Lib Dem leaders before Clegg, when there’s no realistic possibility of anyone ever actually giving you that power. It’s much harder to get the power and then deliver even a fraction of what you promised.

    Fundamentally, any comparison between Biden and Sanders is egregious and meaningless, because you’re measuring one man on what he’s delivered, and the other merely on what he said. Talk is cheap.

  11. Holms says

    No misunderstanding here. Mano compared Sanders and Biden in terms of their stated politics, you compared them in terms of who won. So, your usual babyish routine.

  12. Rob Grigjanis says

    sonofrojblake @1:

    Biden is indeed “no Bernie Sanders”, in that rather than snipe from the sidelines and talk about all the great things he’d do if he had the power…

    Sanders doesn’t just snipe from the sidelines. He’s actually worked his arse off to get progressive legislation passed. In a Senate as rightwing as it is, that’s a daunting task. So while a lot of the positive contributions he’s made haven’t been in the form of bills, they’ve been in amendments to bills. Have a dekko at his wikipedia page.

    So I’d say your comments about Sanders are…how shall I put it?…needlessly churlish.

  13. Deepak Shetty says

    @sonofrojblake @11
    Whats the point of your story ? Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems got into power by making a compromise with the Tories and then didnt deliver and got punished for it. However I am not sure what you are comparing here. You are the one who believes that one must be in power to effect change , so Clegg did the right thing(? The Lib Dems sold their souls to the Tories , so is it the implication that Sanders would do the same -- that if he was president with a Republican house and senate he would start signing off on tax cuts instead of vetoing them where he could? Its clear for any highly progressive(not just Sanders) in USA would need many other things to align (House, Senate, Supreme Court) but thats the case for most Democracies.

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