Ron Johnson sparks new problem with Medicare, Social Security rhetoric

When thinking about the many reasons Sen. Ron Johnson struggles on Capitol Hill, the most obvious troubles related to his weird conspiracy theories and eager embrace of ridiculous misinformation. The scope of his troubles is almost impressive, cultivating a dreadful record on everything from Jan. 6 to Covid to the 2020 presidential election.

But we’re occasionally reminded that the Wisconsin Republican has a more mundane problem: Johnson’s policy ideas are bad, too. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported:

Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson indicated Tuesday that Medicare and Social Security should be subjected to annual budget deliberations, a move that could upend guaranteed benefits relied upon by millions of Americans. Johnson, who is running for a third term in November in a race that could shape the balance of power in the Senate, made his comments during an interview on the Regular Joe Show, hosted by Joe Giganti.

I’m mindful of the fact that the moment some readers see phrases like “discretionary budget,” they’ll quickly go elsewhere, but this is less wonky than it might seem.

Broadly speaking, federal spending in the United States is broken up into two big categories. The first is the mandatory budget, which is fixed and automatic, and the second is the discretionary budget, which requires Congress’ approval. When the public hears about lawmakers fighting over spending, it’s nearly always about the latter: The discretionary budget covers everything from the Pentagon to national parks, the CDC to the FBI, and so on.

Mandatory spending is, well, mandatory. Funding for Social Security, for example, isn’t subjected to annual debates on Capitol Hill, because it’s not discretionary spending. Americans who are eligible for the guaranteed benefits receive them under federal law. Period. Full stop.

And for Wisconsin’s Republican senator, that’s a problem that should be fixed.

“Defense spending has always been discretionary,” Johnson said on the air this week. “VA spending is discretionary. What’s mandatory are things like Social Security and Medicare. If you qualify for the entitlement you just get it no matter what the cost. 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.

“What we ought to be doing is we ought to turn everything into discretionary spending so that it’s all evaluated so that we can fix problems or fix programs that are broken that are going to be going bankrupt,” he said.

For now, let’s put aside the fact that neither Social Security nor Medicare are “broken.” Let’s instead focus on Johnson’s underlying goal: End mandatory spending altogether.

In many circles, these social insurance programs — pillars of modern American life — are known as “entitlements” because we’re entitled to the support as benefits of citizenship.

In the GOP senator’s vision, there would effectively be no such thing as entitlements.

In practical terms, if Johnson’s vision were implemented, Social Security and Medicare would have to be funded annually through the congressional appropriations process. The allocations would need at least 60 votes in the Senate, a majority in the House, and a presidential signature, every year, indefinitely — or else.

Or put another way, the senator’s plan is great if you’re eager to put Medicare and Social Security benefits in jeopardy.

It didn’t take long for the Biden White House to denounce Johnson’s preferred approach, and on Capitol Hill yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer took a swing at the ball that the Wisconsin Republican set on a tee.

“The junior senator from Wisconsin wants to put Medicare and Social Security on the chopping block,” the New York Democrat told reporters. “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.”

In fairness, it’s worth emphasizing that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s office suggested to The Washington Post that he’s not on board with such a plan. Other Republicans have also made no effort to rally behind Johnson’s pitch.

But the prominent Wisconsin Republican — facing a competitive re-election race this year — nevertheless made the argument publicly, raising the election stakes anew for voters who support Social Security and Medicare.