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Brett Arends’s ROI: Why won’t Republicans rule out attacking Social Security?

I am trying to disprove the claim that the Republican leadership plan to slash Social Security if they win the midterm elections.

And I can’t.

Plenty of opinion polls say the GOP are on track to win control of the House of Representatives in the elections in less than two weeks. They may also win control of the Senate.

That would make Congressional leader Kevin McCarthy the next Speaker of the House of Representatives, with sweeping control of the legislative agenda.

A few days ago McCarthy caused a storm with some comments about federal spending and the debt ceiling limit, in an interview with Punchbowl News.

“You can’t just continue down the path to keep spending and adding to the debt,” he said. If the Democrats want to raise the debt ceiling again, he continued, “there comes a point in time where, OK, we’ll provide you more money, but you got to change your current behavior. We’re not just going to keep lifting your credit card limit, right? And we should seriously sit together and [figure out] where can we eliminate some waste?”

Ominously, McCarthy then added that he would not “predetermine” whether Social Security (and Medicare) would be part of his proposed budget cuts. (A McCarthy press spokesman used the word “prejudge” instead.)

Read: What might a Republican Congress do about Social Security and Medicare?

His comments caused an outcry. “The future of Social Security and Medicare is on the ballot this November,” warned Alex Lawson, executive director of the pressure group Social Security Works.

OK, so this is politics. Democrats accused McCarthy of revealing plans to go after Social Security. This was backed up, or echoed, by Democrat-leaning media outlets.

If the accusations were wrong, it would be relatively easy for McCarthy shut them down, right? All he had to say is “we will not cut Social Security or Medicare,” or something similar, definite and absolute.

And he can’t do it.

I emailed McCarthy’s staff and got back an email that, frankly, insulted the intelligence of MarketWatch readers.

“Our position on this is clear,” wrote press spokesman Matt Sparks, who then included nothing more than a link to a one page “Commitment to America.” Any reference to Social Security and Medicare in this document was so obscure I had to use a “find” function to locate it. And there it is, toward the bottom, the second point under an unrelated heading about holding government accountable: The GOP wants to “Save and strengthen Social Security and Medicare.”

What does that mean? I asked Sparks and he just repeated the point. “It is a pretty clear position for what our governing posture would be next Congress—’save and secure Social Security and Medicare.’ ”

No, that is not “clear.” That could mean anything. Many of the people who want to cut, or even gut, Social Security and Medicare say they need to do it in order to “save it” and “secure it.” So this comment means nothing.

Saying a vague and unclear statement is “clear” would be like me walking around Washington, D.C. insisting I wasn’t bald. “Look at my long, flowing locks,” I could say, and expect everyone to agree. If they didn’t, I guess I could just keep repeating the point until they gave up. Oh, to be a press officer!

McCarthy, on CNBC, pointedly refused to rule out cuts to America’s retirement system. “Let me be very clear, I never mentioned Social Security or Medicare. Actually, in the ‘Commitment to America,’ we say to strengthen Social Security and Medicare,” he told the financial news channel.

Note what he didn’t say, that he would not cut Social Security. He said only that he never mentioned it in the interview.

What people do not say is often as important as what they do say.

Here’s what we know. Social Security has a $20 trillion hole in its accounts. The trust fund is due to be depleted by 2035. The Medicare trust fund will run out of money even sooner: In 2028.

This is a looming crisis that should probably be the No. 1 topic of debate in these elections. Most Americans could not retire in dignity without Social Security and Medicare. It simply isn’t an option.

Some Republicans in Washington are already talking openly about potentially cutting these programs. And a couple of prominent Republicans have even suggested laws that could put the entire programs in question.

The Republican Study Group, a group representing 157 GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill, has already published a program that includes raising the retirement age for Social Security, cutting benefits for “higher earners,” and starting the process of partially privatizing the program for younger workers—a process that would undermine the program. The justification, as usual, is that the program is doomed without cuts.

This, of course, is untrue. Calculations by the Social Security Administration show that some simple changes, such as levying Social Security taxes on all earned income, or introducing a tax on income over $400,000, would alone close most of the hole in the accounts.

Never mind such crazy, goofball ideas such as, say, running the trust funds like every other pension fund on the planet—something that would, alone, have already eliminated the entire budget hole without any taxes or cuts.

Where does this leave us? In no man’s land. How can anyone vote for a party if they won’t rule out cutting our pensions? It would be like signing up for a job without agreeing on compensation. It’s simply impossible.

At that point it doesn’t even matter what politicians are saying about Ukraine, or climate change, or inflation (if anyone even has a solution to that, I am all ears). I will need Social Security for my retirement and so will almost everyone reading this article. If the Republicans want our votes in these elections, they need to answer some questions and stop insulting us.

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