Sen. Ron Johnson calls for subjecting Medicare and Social Security to annual budget talks
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., 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.
Federal spending is in two baskets — discretionary spending which comes in annual appropriations in areas like defense and public works and mandatory spending that is generally governed by statute and includes entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare that provide guaranteed benefits.
During the interview, Johnson was asked about the PACT Act — aid to veterans who have been exposed to toxic burn pits — and a controversy over discretionary vs. mandatory spending.
Johnson suggested that he seeks to turn everything in the federal budget into discretionary spending — including Social Security and Medicare — so programs can be evaluated and fixed.
The Wisconsin Republican lamented that such a large chunk of the federal budget is mandatory spending, saying it sits on "automatic pilot" and hamstrings the government's ability to address problems in those programs.
"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.
Johnson said that "as long as things are on automatic pilot we just continue to pile up debt, mortgage our kids' future, this massive debt burden, combined with this massive deficit spending that sparked this inflation that's wiping out people's wage gains, making it impossible for them to make ends meet. Again, this didn't just happen."
Democrats in Wisconsin and in Washington slammed Johnson's comments.
“Self-serving, multimillionaire senator Ron Johnson wants to strip working people of the Social Security and Medicare they’ve earned. 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,” Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Johnson's likely Democratic rival in the November election, said in a statement.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre weighed in with a tweet, saying Johnson wants to "put Medicare on the chopping block" in a move that would "devastate families.
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Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., criticized Johnson on the floor of the Senate on Wednesday.
“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," Schumer said.
Johnson spokeswoman Alexa Henning said the senator wants to keep Social Security and Medicare solvent.
"The Senator’s point was that without fiscal discipline and oversight typically found with discretionary spending, Congress has allowed the guaranteed benefits for programs like Social Security and Medicare to be threatened," Henning said in a statement.
"This must be addressed by Congress taking its responsibilities seriously to ensure that seniors don’t need to question whether the programs they depend on remain solvent. As he said, we need a process to save these programs and no one is doing anything to save them long term. We just continue piling up debt, mortgaging our children's future, and putting these programs at risk."
A key trust fund backing Medicare is funded through 2028, according to projections, and the Social Security trust fund is fully funded through 2035.
In the past, Johnson has called Social Security a "Ponzi Scheme." He even cut an ad on the subject in his first campaign in 2012 against Democrat Russ Feingold.
"You know what? I did say that...because it's true," Johnson said in the ad.
"Russ Feingold and politicians from both parties raided the Social Security Trust Fund of trillions and left seniors an IOU. They spent the money, it's gone.
"I'll fight to keep every nickel of Social Security for retirees and I'll respect you enough to tell you the truth."
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Lawrence Andrea contributed from Washington.