Political Animal


December 08, 2011 8:00 AM Social Security’s alleged champions

By Steve Benen

While GOP congressional leaders have made clear they’d like to extend the payroll tax break for another year, several prominent Republicans have begun crafting an excuse for failure. The new line: they have to let the tax cut lapse because they just love Social Security too much.

Let’s take a step back and provide some policy context here. The payroll tax that American workers pay goes into the Social Security system to pay benefits for retirees. What happens if the payroll tax is cut? In this case, nothing — proponents replace the lost revenue with money from the general fund. Workers find some additional money in every paycheck, and integrity of the Social Security finances isn’t affected. No muss, no fuss.

You don’t have to take my word for it — Social Security’s chief actuary told policymakers yesterday the system “would be unaffected by enactment of this” tax cut.

But for Republicans who don’t want to give the middle class a tax break, these details are proving inconvenient, and as such, they’re being ignored. Here’s Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) on CNBC this week:

“Republicans are always ready to cut taxes, as you know. We don’t think it’s a good idea to do it by raiding Social Security.”

And here’s Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Fox News:

“[T]he president is advocating reducing the amount of funding to Social Security when they’re already $6 trillion short. So it doesn’t really make any sense and it really argues that he’s going to bankrupt Social Security even quicker by reducing its funding.”

And here’s Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) to Dave Weigel:

“The payroll tax is targeted toward making Social Security stable. I don’t want to harm the stability of our Social Security system.”

Rush Limbaugh and the House Republican leadership have gotten in on the same game.

It’s quite a transition, isn’t it? Not quite three months ago, all kinds of leading GOP voices were comfortable condemning Social Security as a “Ponzi scheme.” This week, Republicans are prepared to stick the middle class with a tax hike because of their deep and abiding love for this “Ponzi scheme.”

Indeed, the irony of the rhetoric from DeMint, Paul, and Johnson is especially rich. These are three pretty extreme right-wing ideologues, who, when pushed, admit they’d love to privatize Social Security out of existence. It makes this new rhetoric rather amusing, for lack of a better word.

For the record, they’re entirely wrong. If the payroll break is extended, Social Security wouldn’t be “raided”; it wouldn’t “bankrupted”; and it wouldn’t be “harmed.” The system wouldn’t lose so much as a dime. Either Republicans don’t understand the basics of this policy debate, or they do, and they’re playing the public for fools.

Either way, Washington’s biggest foes of Social Security are doing their very best to pretend they’re Social Security’s biggest champions. It’s a shameless, inane con.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


Post a comment
  • Rick Taylor on December 08, 2011 8:05 AM:

    "The system wouldn�t lose so much as a dime"

    Could you explain this?

  • c u n d gulag on December 08, 2011 8:06 AM:

    "Indeed, the irony of the rhetoric from DeMint, Paul, and Johnson..."

    Yes, it's ironic to us, but not to them.

    It's a well known fact that Conservatives suffer from an irony deficiency.

  • Lance on December 08, 2011 8:07 AM:

    If we go back to a year ago we might find out that cutting the payroll tax was the Republican's idea to replace Obama's stimulas tax cut provision, which I believe was called "Making Work Pay". So if the Republicans don't want to continue their idea, can we go back to that?


  • Danp on December 08, 2011 8:11 AM:

    We dont think its a good idea to do it by raiding Social Security. - DeMint

    Actually that's exactly what you have been doing for the last 30 years. You just don't want to have to pay it back.

  • sick-n-effn-tired. on December 08, 2011 8:13 AM:

    Republicans Lie? Who Knew?
    Seriously, like my favorite Truman Capote quote.
    Everything out of their mouths is a lie including "and " and "the"

  • DAY on December 08, 2011 8:13 AM:

    That was then, this is now. We eagerly await tomorrow.

  • Josef K on December 08, 2011 8:13 AM:

    Its a shameless, inane con.

    No argument there. Will the mark actually go for it, is the question, and given how gullible the American electorate has been of late its good odds they will.

    What a mess.

  • Mudge on December 08, 2011 8:14 AM:

    This lack of consistency will not be noticed by the 27%. Pandering to that constituency, however, seems to be less effective in general these days. People with brains are beginning to see a pattern.

    Given that the tax holiday is in effect a small stimulus, the Repugs cannot ideologically condone it since they cannot admit that enacting it will improve the economy. And they cannot admit that removing it will depress the economy. So the payroll tax break must be ideologically neutral. They're having a hard time convincing the average homeowner that having less money will not harm their lifestyle.

  • just bill on December 08, 2011 8:24 AM:

    rick taylor: the answer to your question is in the article.

  • SW on December 08, 2011 8:36 AM:

    It is true that the payroll tax 'holiday' in and of itself will not damage social security. What will damage social security is an endless holiday. And casting the end of the holiday as a 'tax increase on the middle class' in this town full of political cowards is a pretty good prescription for turning it into an endless holiday. That is where the danger lies. So we will all have to be very vigilant about that. I believe that it should be tied to some hard unemployment data.

  • Paul Dirks on December 08, 2011 8:37 AM:

    Either Republicans don�t understand the basics of this policy debate, or they do, and they�re playing the public for fools.......

    Stupid or lying?

    Definitely lying.

  • fostert on December 08, 2011 8:39 AM:

    "amusing, for lack of a better word"

    Umm, go a little further in your dictionary. You'll find 'appalling'.

  • AK Liberal on December 08, 2011 8:52 AM:

    @ Rick Taylor: The answer to your question is in paragraph two. Paragraph three has a link to the source article in case you are not inclined to take Steve's word for it.

  • DAY on December 08, 2011 8:55 AM:

    FICA ( Federal Insurance Contributions Act ) rises and falls, like the mercury in a barometer, depending upon the economy and the political winds in Washington.

    At its onset, the retirement age was 65. As was life expectancy. But we began to live longer, and the work force dwindled as automation, birth control, and outsourcing replaced the steady supply of new workers. Hence the increases in the rate. A band aide, but at least a long term one, as politicians kicked that can down the road.

    Full employment will one again get the money flowing to Washington, and that is what congress should be working on, not playing gotcha with their disparate philosophies of government.
    Ain't gonna happen. At 9AM the House will debate Farm Dust.

  • kevo on December 08, 2011 9:01 AM:

    Shameless pandering
    wet their pants power to gain


  • Jose Hipants on December 08, 2011 9:07 AM:

    "For the record, they're entirely wrong" = "They're lying again."

  • Robert Waldmann on December 08, 2011 9:12 AM:

    Finally finally someone called them on their falsehood. Part of the reason we need blogs is that establishment media are very reluctant to report that politicians' claims are plain false.

    In The Washington Post Rosalind Helderman managed to discuss the debate at length without mentioning the little detail that the payroll tax holiday does not affect Social Security finances.


  • SadOldVet on December 08, 2011 9:13 AM:

    It's a shameless, inane con THAT WAS PREDICTED AND WILL WORK!

  • SYSPROG on December 08, 2011 9:49 AM:

    THIS is the lie! Letting the Bush tax cuts expire = a tax hike. Letting the payroll tax cut expire = a tax cut we can't afford.

  • chopin on December 08, 2011 9:50 AM:

    One damn minute, cowboy. So lowering the SS tax revenue doesn't effect the program's solvency one dime because.......the difference is made up by the general Treasury which, I'm told, has this unimportant side effect of increasing the deficit. Hey, why don't we just eliminate all the damn taxes and let the general Treasury take care of the expense? Jeeeezus Hell's Bells. This "solution" is nuttier than a squirrel turd.

  • johnny canuck on December 08, 2011 9:59 AM:

    Chopin, you are missing the final step. Because Obama and the democrats don't wish to increase the deficit, they have proposed a way to add sufficient reveune to the general treasury so the deficit won't go up. That is the tax surcharge on annual incomes over a million.

  • chopin on December 08, 2011 10:06 AM:

    Missed that. Thanks johnny.

  • SYSPROG on December 08, 2011 10:11 AM:

    Here is another write up. You could call it COUNTERING THE LIES...

  • SadOldVet on December 08, 2011 10:16 AM:

    The 'payroll tax holiday' has always been a bad idea. From the start, it was designed to provide further proof for republicans of the insolvency of social security. Naturally, The Capitulator In Chief was able to secure a one year 'payroll tax holiday' and a one year 'extension of unemployment benefits' in exchange for a two year extension of tax cuts for the wealthy.

    If a real approach is wanted that will not provide ammunition for further repuke attacks on social security it always was and will continue to be the following:

    The employer portion of social security & FICA taxes are deductable. Employees portions are not deductable and we still pay income taxes on those amounts! Give the employee portions of social security and FICA taxes the same deductability as employers receive and lower working peoples taxes that way! This approach would not provide justifications for the repukes attacks on social security!

  • markg8 on December 08, 2011 10:27 AM:

    There are plenty of Democrats, some of them economists, who spread the same fear that Obama is gutting SS. Everybody has to push back against this and make it clear Obama and Democrats want to pay for it with a very popular surtax on millionaires. In 2010 the GOP was very successful peddling nonsense about Democrats taking half a trillion out of Medicare. Let's not let that happen again by pretending we can ignore their attacks.

  • kindness on December 08, 2011 11:09 AM:

    For the record what Republicans are doing is they are lying.

    Don't sugar coat it Steve. Unless they are forced to take responsibility for their actions and inactions, they won't stop lying.

    Tell the truth. Tell everyone they are lying when they are lying.

  • Mnemosyne on December 08, 2011 12:28 PM:

    So Republicans are echoing the objections from the left to try and bolster their position, and people are surprised? Puh-lease.

    Now, of course, Democrats like Rush Holt will vote with the Republicans to block the extension because -- hallelujah! -- DeMint has seen the light. And once again, Congressional Democrats will get rolled.

    Oh, and Holt and his supporters will blame Obama for Holt's being taken in by the Republicans because it was Obama's proposal in the first place.

  • golack on December 08, 2011 12:30 PM:

    I still say lower the rate and raise/lift the cap. Do so on both sides, employer and employee, while increasing the medicare/medicaid rates. Set it up so it's a net tax break for those below $200K.

  • cmdicely on December 08, 2011 1:18 PM:

    Employees portions are not deductable and we still pay income taxes on those amounts! Give the employee portions of social security and FICA taxes the same deductability as employers receive and lower working peoples taxes that way! This approach would not provide justifications for the repukes attacks on social security!

    If you do that, then not only do the rich pay a smaller portion of their income in payroll taxes to start with(because of the SS cap), but they also get more of them back (because of the interaction of deductibility with progressive marginal rates.)

    This would mean that someone making an income right at the cap would pay a greater total amount (not just a higher effective rate, as currently) of SS tax then someone making enough more as to be in a higher tax bracket (since SS tax cap is well below the cut-off for the top tax bracket.)

    If you are trying to focus a tax cut on the low- to middle-income segment of the wage-earning population, this isn't a particularly effective technique. If you want to give a tax cut that disproportionately rewards the highest-income wage-earners, this works quite well.

  • Marko on December 08, 2011 2:19 PM:

    Wait a minute. I thought the payroll tax cut was for the federal income tax. How does Social Security get into the mix? Social Security has its own tax.

  • Lance on December 08, 2011 2:44 PM:


    The payroll (FICA) Tax is the Social Security Tax, and that is what the Republicans proposed to reduce back in Dec 2010 to replace the Make Work Pay tax credit that was implemented in 2008.