Ron Johnson says funding for Social Security and Medicare should be optional

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Wisconsin Democratic Senate candidate Mandela Barnes responded, 'Self-serving, multimillionaire senator Ron Johnson wants to strip working people of the Social Security and Medicare they've earned.'

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) said on Aug. 2 that the nation's safety net programs should be made discretionary, putting their guaranteed benefits at risk for millions of older Americans. He joins a growing number of Republican Senate incumbents and challengers who are calling for major changes to the decades-old entitlements.

In an interview on Wisconsin radio station WTAQ with right-wing host Joe Giganti, Johnson argued that instead of Social Security and Medicare being funded through mandatory spending, Congress should be able to choose how much to spend on the programs each year so they don't "pile up debt" over time.

Defense spending has always been discretionary, you know, 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% of our federal budget, of our federal spending, is all mandatory spending, it's on automatic pilot. It never — you don't do proper oversight, and 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 it's all evaluated, so that we can fix problems or fix programs that are broken, that are going to be going bankrupt.

According to U.S. Census Bureau data, 17.9% of Wisconsin's nearly 5.9 million residents are age 65 or older; 22.9% of eligible voters are at least 65 years old.

Social Security provides those more than 1 million Wisconsinites a guaranteed income in retirement, while Medicare offers them health insurance and prescription drug benefits. According to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Social Security makes up the majority of income for most older Americans — and, for a quarter of them, gives them 90% of their income each month.

This is not the first time Johnson has taken aim at the enormously popular safety net programs.

"We can't afford the entitlements programs we have today," he said in November 2021, "these things are Ponzi schemes."

In 2013, he was one of just 18 senators — all Republicans — who voted for a proposal by Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) to raise the Social Security eligibility age from 65 to 70 over two decades.

Johnson, who according to a poll released in April is second only to Mitch McConnell among the nation's least popular senators, is facing an uphill battle for a third term.

Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, who is expected to easily win the Democratic Party's Senate nomination on Aug. 9 after several of his opponents dropped out of the primary race, blasted Johnson's comments on Tuesday.

"Self-serving, multimillionaire senator Ron Johnson wants to strip working people of the Social Security and Medicare they've earned," he said in a statement. "Wisconsinites pay into Social Security through a lifetime of hard work, and they're counting on this program and Medicare — but Ron Johnson just doesn't care."

Johnson is not alone in threatening the current Social Security system.

Blake Masters, who won the Arizona Republican Senate nomination on Aug. 2, said in June that Social Security should be privatized. "Maybe we should privatize Social Security, right?" he told the right-wing advocacy group FreedomWorks. "Private retirement accounts, get the government out of it."

Former Londonderry, New Hampshire, town manager and one-time state Rep. Kevin Smith, who is seeking the New Hampshire Republican Senate nomination, told a local GOP committee in June: "I think another thing we can look at is, in the future, reforming Social Security — not touching anyone's Social Security in here — we've all paid into the system, and I would not propose that at all. But for my kids who haven't paid into the system yet, and my grandkids who aren't born yet, going from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan, for them. So, but that's, those are for future generations."

Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee and is tasked with winning back a GOP majority in the chamber, released a controversial plan in February for what his party should do if it achieves that majority in the next Congress.

His originally 11-point, now 12-point "Rescue America" plan contains the proposal "All federal legislation sunsets in 5 years. If a law is worth keeping, Congress can pass it again." If that proposal were adopted, entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid would need to be passed in Congress and signed into law all over again twice each decade or would expire completely.

In a March "Fox News Sunday" interview, Scott claimed that this would "preserve" the programs: "No one that I know of wants to sunset Medicare or Social Security, but what we're doing is, we don't even talk about it. Medicare goes bankrupt in four years. Social Security goes bankrupt in 12 years. I think we ought to figure out how we preserve those programs. Every program that we care about, we ought to stop and take the time to preserve those programs."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.