Don’t get too comfortable with your Social Security and Medicare.
That’s the warning President Trump sent from his New Jersey golf course Saturday as he announced a package of coronavirus “relief” that turns out to be more of a cynical and cruel campaign stunt.
Here’s why it’s cynical:
- Democrats and even some Republicans are questioning the legality of his new executive orders, which depend in large measure on the voluntary cooperation of employers and cash-strapped state legislatures.
- The “cut” in payroll taxes that finance Social Security and Medicare is actually a deferment that workers or their employers would have to cough up next year. But Trump vowed to make the cut permanent.
- The temporary $400 in weekly supplemental unemployment benefits turns out to be only $300. States would be challenged to kick in another $100, but most legislatures are cash-strapped and forbidden by constitutions or laws to run deficits like the federal government can. They can’t print money either. Trump would filch the $300 of federal money from funds budgeted for natural disasters — in hurricane season no less — and that is certain to be challenged in court.
- The “order” to resume a moratorium on evictions is nothing more than an instruction to government agencies to “consider” whether it needs to be done and to look for money in their existing budgets to help terrified renters.
- The only legally sound step he took waives interest on student loans through Dec. 31 and allows people to defer payments until then. But it applies only to those debts held by the government, not to those owed private banks.
He’s raising false hopes for everyone else. That’s what makes it cruel.
What he actually accomplished was to reinforce the Democratic Party’s persistent accusation that the Republicans intend to destroy Social Security and Medicare. Republican politicians cry foul whenever they hear that, but what Trump said Saturday makes their job of denial that much harder.
This is what he said:
“If victorious on November Third, I plan to forgive these taxes and make permanent cuts to the payroll tax.”
A senior campaign adviser, Erin Perrine, amplified that by tweeting that Trump would “look into terminating the payroll tax permanently in a second term.”
Trump could not do any of that without congressional approval.
The payroll tax funds Social Security, most of Medicare’s hospitalization insurance, and Social Security disability benefits. Even a temporary half-year deferment would eat up some of the programs’ trust funds, and permanent repeal would destroy them.
Congress conceivably could fund them from general revenue (which runs an almost chronic deficit) but Republicans have always opposed that recourse and Democrats don’t like it either. The trust funds are legally pledged revenue for earned benefits; politicians rightfully fear tampering with them. General revenue, on the other hand, must be appropriated by Congress each year. The nation’s most important social safety nets would become as vulnerable as cobwebs in a gale if they became uncoupled from their earmarked revenues.
Social Security’s trustees estimate it will exhaust its accumulated surpluses in 2034. Medicare’s Hospitalization Insurance Trust Fund will run dry in 2026; whoever is elected president this year had better see to refreshing it.
In either event, Congress would have to reduce benefits or raise taxes — the same taxes that Trump has promised to cut.
It can be taken for granted that the White House switchboard was deluged Saturday with frantic calls from endangered Republican congressional candidates. In response, Trump’s surrogates took to the Sunday talk shows to try to spin what he said.
For example, Larry Kudlow, his chief economic adviser, said on CNN’s “State of the Nation” that Trump would “protect Social Security and Medicare” and that only the payroll tax deferral would be made permanent.
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin promised, apparently without consulting Congress, that this year’s lost revenue would be replaced by “an automatic” general fund contribution.
But Trump himself hasn’t taken back what came out of his mouth. Should he try to, that bell can’t be unrung.
Unguarded remarks speak more truths than any retractions. The truth about Trump is either that he simply doesn’t understand Social Security and Medicare as a president should, or that he has been brainwashed by extreme ideologues into wanting to repeal them.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a Republican, wrote in 1954 that if any political party attempted to abolish social security, among other essential programs, “you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”
Payroll taxes don’t even belong in any rational discussion of relief for people slammed economically by COVID-19. They are paid only by those who are working and by their employers. Suspending them does nothing for any of the 16.3 million Americans whom the Labor Department classified as unemployed last week.
And yet, those payroll taxes seem to matter so much to Trump — or perhaps to his chief of staff, Mark Meadows — that they became an early obstacle to reaching agreement with Congress on renewing essential emergency aid to the American people.
Even Senate Republicans told the White House that cutting the payroll taxes was a non-starter.
Trump — or was it Meadows? — may have been angling all along for a stalemate that they would blame on Democratic leaders in Congress.
It would be in character for Meadows, a product of the Tea Party and a glaring North Carolina gerrymander, who didn’t wait to take his oath as a House freshman in 2013 before trying to organize a government shutdown that he hoped would force repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Once in office, his obstructionism, along with that of other members of the Freedom Caucus he co-founded, drove former Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, to quit Congress and politics altogether. Wherever he might have looked, Trump could hardly have found anyone less suited than Meadows to be his chief of staff in a divided government.
According to The New York Times on Sunday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reportedly told Meadows to his face, “You’ve never done a deal.”
The American people sorely need one now. What they don’t need is the eyewash of futile executive orders from a president who resorts to them whenever Congress doesn’t give him what he wants. As a candidate, he regularly assailed then-President Barack Obama for signing executive orders. But Donald Trump is as immune to irony as he is to empathy, modesty and responsibility.