If you measure a the priorities of a Congress by what they take on first, Boehner’s caucus has its eyes on bigger windmills than I thought.
The incoming GOP majority approved late Tuesday a new rule that experts say could provoke an unprecedented crisis that conservatives could use as leverage in upcoming debates over entitlement reform.
The largely overlooked change puts a new restriction on the routine transfer of tax revenues between the traditional Social Security retirement trust fund and the Social Security disability program.[…] The House GOP’s rule change would still allow for a reallocation from the retirement fund to shore up the disability fund — but only if an accompanying proposal “improves the overall financial health of the combined Social Security Trust Funds,” per the rule, expected to be passed on Tuesday. While that language is vague, experts say it would likely mean any reallocation would have to be balanced by new revenues or benefit cuts. […] The Social Security and Medicare Boards of Trustees estimated last year that the disability insurance program would run short of money to pay all benefits some time in late 2016. Without a new reallocation, disability insurance beneficiaries could face up to 20 percent cuts in their Social Security payments in late 2016 — a chit that would be of use to Republicans pushing for conservative entitlement reforms.
That seems clever. Republicans quietly set a time bomb that is practically guaranteed to cut social security in a few years. How can we possibly beat this diabolical plan? Well, let’s walk through the optics for a minute. 2016 will be an election year, one that already looks unusually favorable for Democrats. Democratic voters always show up in Presidential years, but aside from that a huge number of close-call Republican Senators will be defending their seats. Like always happens in a Presidential election without an incumbent both parties will be trying desperately to define themselves. Democrats traditionally struggle with that, not least Bill Clinton and his mushed-up New Democrat triangulating, and Hillary strikes me if anything as worse than her husband about politicking without clear core identity.
But toss Social Security into the ring, that changes things. Republicans have taken swings at the program before and every single time they have sorely regretted it. Immiserating the old and poor is not something you just do like farting in church or kicking a dog, it takes some art. You rig the rules and cut lines on the safety net a bit at a time. You get them fighting each other and put on a show that you are mostly hurting the ones you don’t need to win. What you never, ever do is yank dinner out from under the nose of people you need to show up and vote.
Hell, the Bush plan to privatize Social Security was a Machiavellian masterpiece compared to this. Remember that the stock market was riding high* and the instantaneous yields on privatizing people’s SS money might have been fairly positive, at least until 2008. The debate concerned how comfortable people felt with risk more than cutting anyone’s benefits tomorrow. As it turned out most seniors lived long enough to remember the stock market going up and down, and the risk did not appeal to them at all. By contrast in 2016 Republicans just hope to cut everyone’s benefits by about a fifth. Psychologically that is about a million times more draconian than the sideways shift that helped Democrats take Congress back in 2016 and I expect it to go over proportionately well.
The GOP can dress it up in opaque mechanisms but somehow people who have benefits will get around twenty percent less of them right before a major election. Say they cut the wealthiest twenty percent off of Social Security; in fact I think that is probably Boehner’s plan. Republicans have flirted with “means testing” plenty of times. Each time they only flirt long enough to take a cold and sobering look at the polls. The main difference is this time they cut off their own escape route. The rule change is the political equivalent of fighting with your army’s back against a cliff in the theory that men will fight harder if the alternative is surrender or death. Sometimes that works, but people only pull that kind of desperation move when the odds are not on their side. You don’t go looking for opportunities to do it.
To sum up, in a Presidential election year Republicans will have to either change the rule back (the smartest move but a pretty stark loss of face), raise revenues (= taxes, ha) or eat the blame for a huge haircut to the single benefit program most important to their core voting demographic. On top of that Democrats can just change the rule back in 2017 if the take Congress, which they may well do if the overriding issue of 2016 is who wants to defend your Social Security benefits and who wants to slash them for no damned reason at all.
This truly strikes me as one of the single dumbest political gambits that I have ever seen. Political malpractice does not begin to describe it. Imagine an own goal injures the goalie and then gets you red carded for celebrating. Then again, maybe I just missed the genius. Thoughts?
(*) Yes, Wall Street was riding on a mountain of turd mortgages, but few people knew that at the time.