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Is Entitlement Reform the GOP's Waterloo? Is Entitlement Reform the GOP's Waterloo? Is Entitlement Reform the GOP's Waterloo? Is Entitlement Reform the...

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Is Entitlement Reform the GOP's Waterloo?

Among other changes, the budget plan offered up by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis, would replace Medicare with a voucher system that would allow seniors to buy private insurance, and replace traditional Medicaid with a block-grant program.(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

photo of Eliza Newlin Carney
April 18, 2011

Five months after a midterm election that turned in part on GOP warnings that Democrats’ health care overhaul would gut Medicare, liberal activists may soon give Republicans a taste of their own medicine.

Influential senior citizen, labor, and health care groups are organizing rallies, advertisements, and grassroots lobbying campaigns to defend Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security from proposed cuts. Medicare, in particular, has moved to the front lines in the ongoing budget wars. Some activists are targeting lawmakers with a starkly political message: Defend entitlements or pay a price.

“We are activating our retirees all over the country,” said Chuck Loveless, director of legislation for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. As part of a coalition that includes the Alliance for Retired Americans, Health Care for America Now, and Americans United for Change, AFSCME is launching what Loveless called a “persuasive advertising” campaign aimed at centrist Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate.


Additional ads will assail House Republicans who voted for the fiscal 2012 budget proposed by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis. Among other changes, the Ryan plan would replace Medicare with a voucher system that would allow seniors to buy private insurance, and replace traditional Medicaid with a block-grant program. “This is not going to be a free vote,” Loveless declared.

When Ryan first unveiled his plan, some activists dismissed it as a political non-starter, given White House and Senate opposition. But last week President Obama’s fiscal policy speech stirred fresh Medicare fears. The program’s defenders warn that the president’s “Debt Failsafe” plan, to trigger across-the-board spending cuts if deficit-reduction targets are not met, would endanger entitlements indirectly.

“If you set the cap numbers low enough, it is virtually impossible to hit those numbers without decimating pretty much every program that we care about,” said Maria Freese, director of government relations and policy at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare.

The National Committee regards Obama’s comments as even “more troublesome” than the Ryan plan, Freese said, and is pivoting to focus on Medicare with letter writing, lobbying meetings, and a possible ad buy outside the Beltway.

Also triggering alarm bells is Obama’s proposal to curb Medicare costs, which already will drop under his new health care law. The Affordable Care Act set up an independent Medicare board that will spell out cost reductions if the program grows at a rate of more than GDP per capita plus 1 percent. Last week Obama said those cuts should kick in at an even lower threshold: GDP per capita plus 0.5 percent.

“We think the debate should be around holding down health care costs, quite frankly, throughout the whole system—not just in Medicare and Medicaid,” said David Certner, legislative policy director for the AARP, which in 2005 helped kill President George W. Bush’s proposal to partially privatize Social Security with a national advertising blitz.

Also watching closely are health care provider groups representing hospitals and doctors. Other influential players include Families USA, which is galvanizing its members to oppose the Ryan plan with the slogan: “Don’t let them take your Medicare and Medicaid.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have reason to be nervous. Democrats lost considerable ground among seniors in the midterm thanks to GOP attacks on the health care overhaul, said Eric Kingson, co-chair of the Strengthen Social Security campaign, which he said is planning rallies in 40-50 cities around the country on April 28 to send the message: “Don’t raise the retirement age. Do not privatize Medicare.”

The group has “pivoted to a more political strategy,” he added. Organizers have approached congressional Democrats with exit poll data compiled by Lake Research Partners suggesting that voters now say Republicans will handle Social Security better than Democrats, a reversal of longtime trends. Organizers also have met with a growing Defend Social Security Caucus in the Senate, headed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.

“Lots of Democrats in the House and Senate will fall if this isn’t addressed,” said Kingson. “It’s an example where good policy, we believe, aligns quite well with good politics.”

At the same time, additional Lake Research polling shows that 74 percent of tea party supporters oppose cutting Social Security benefits in order to reduce the deficit. Those findings are consistent with a March Wall Street Journal/ABC poll that found 54 percent of respondents reject the argument that Medicare cuts are needed to reduce the deficit, and 49 percent say the same of Social Security.

“I think there’s a disconnect between the Republican Party leadership and the Republican electorate,” said Nancy Altman, the other co-chair of the Strengthen Social Security campaign.

Activists defending retirement and health care programs acknowledge that the ground has shifted dramatically in recent months. The deficit can no longer be ignored; a long list of bipartisan commissions, leading experts and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle agree on the need for entitlements reform, and Republicans are dead set against raising taxes. Still, the pending Medicare lobbying fight attests that the third rail of American politics remains highly charged.

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