The Republicans’ opposition to elder support is decades in the making
For four score and seven years, the United States has had a continuing political divide over the government’s role in the lives of elderly Americans.
While Democrats have advanced the government’s role in the lives of older citizens, Republicans have resisted government entitlement programs, preferring instead the private sector, freedom of choice and individual responsibility.
A 2018 Forbes article details how the political divide became evident on Aug. 14, 1935, when President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law. While 33 percent of Republicans voted against it, 2 percent of Democrats voted against it because the Act wasn’t sufficiently generous, according to economic historian Max Skidmore.
The essence of Republicans’ objections was reflected in the remarks of Congressman John Taber of New York. He contended that if the Social Security Act was passed, it would prevent business recovery, enslave workers and reduce the chances of providing work for the American people.
Republican opposition also had the backing of many U.S. corporations. If the Social Security Act was passed, corporations argued, it would destroy initiative, discourage thrift and stifle individual responsibility.
Thirty years later, on July 30, 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed into law legislation that led to the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid. Those programs again expanded the government’s role in the lives of elderly Americans.
On the Medicare vote, about 50 percent of House Republicans and 57 percent of Senate Republicans voted against it. In contrast, the percentages of Democrats voting against Medicare were considerably less, 17 percent in the House and 11 percent in the Senate.
In their opposition to Medicare, Republicans had support from the healthcare industry. Professional associations warned that the proposed government health program would deteriorate the quality of care, lead America down the road to socialism and leave the country in ruins.
Objections to Medicare were also raised by Ronald Reagan in 1964 before he was elected California governor and later president. Reagan switched from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party largely due to his opposition to Medicare and Social Security, which he considered welfare.
Republican Sen. Majority Leader Robert Dole of Kansas also voted against Medicare when he was in the House. On a number of occasions, Dole noted with pride that he voted against creating Medicare in 1965 because Republicans knew it wouldn’t work. Agreeing with Dole, House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia added that Republicans think people are voluntarily going to leave Medicare and go into private plans.
In 2005, President George W. Bush attempted but failed to replace Social Security with private investment accounts. He and his Republican and corporate supporters argued that Social Security was in crisis and privatization was the only solution to save it. Bush wanted to change Social Security by allowing workers to set aside a percentage of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts.
Some years later, House Republicans, led by Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, proposed replacing Medicare with a voucher system for private insurance. Privatizing Medicare would permit the elderly to shop for coverage in an insurance exchange marketplace, essentially shifting the rising costs of healthcare from the government to the elderly.
In 2017, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Republicans would defend the tax cuts they passed at the time, and in order to curb the growing deficit caused in part by those tax cuts, they would cut Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He added that the principal problem in the federal budget has been the steady, rapid growth over the years in spending on entitlement programs.
Since then, congressional Republicans have continued to recommend revisions to the two main national programs for the elderly. Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, for example, recently recommended that Social Security and Medicare be eliminated as federal entitlement programs and become programs approved by Congress on an annual basis as discretionary spending.
In his “11 Point Plan to Rescue America,” Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who is the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, recommended that all federal legislation be sunset in 5 years, adding that if a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again. Sen. Marco Rubio, also of Florida, has promised to raise Social Security’s retirement age.
In general, Republicans are opposed to big government, tax increases and entitlement programs, preferring the private sector, freedom of choice and competition to meet the needs of Americans.
The Republican view about the government’s role in the lives of Americans is clearly reflected in the well-known words of former president Ronald Reagan: “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
Social Security and Medicare are both facing insolvency in the near future. Current estimates indicate that the shortfalls are expected by six years for Medicare and in 2035 thirteen years for Social Security.
Republicans claim that with Social Security and Medicare going bankrupt if cuts to benefits and costs are not made, the two programs will not be there for future generations of Americans. In contrast, Democrats counter that additional financial resources are needed to ensure their continuation.
Polls show the overwhelming majority of Americans support Social Security and Medicare. Fearing voter reactions, Republicans have downplayed, obscured or simply dismissed their opposition to those two programs as unfounded scare tactics. Recognizing public opinion, Democrats highlight Republican opposition to Social Security and Medicare.
In sum, it remains to be seen how the 87-year political divide between America’s two major political parties will impact the future of Social Security and Medicare and, in turn, the lives of all Americans in old age.
Joseph Chamie is a consulting demographer, a former director of the United Nations Population Division and the author of numerous publications on population issues, including his recent book, “Births, Deaths, Migrations and Other Important Population Matters.”