Democrats have glommed on to something House Majority Leader Eric Cantor said about Social Security at a recent event at the conservative Hoover Institution, which they’re characterizing as an unintentional revelation of the GOP’s plans to dismantle entitlement programs.
“I mean, just from the very notion that it said that 50 percent of beneficiaries under the Social Security program use those moneys as their sole source of income. So we’ve got to protect today’s seniors,” Cantor said. “But for the rest of us? For — you know, listen, we’re going to have to come to grips with the fact that these programs cannot exist if we want America to be what we want America to be.”
Pretty damning stuff, eliminating Social Security. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office blasted out a statement to reporters Wednesday, “A warning for American workers and their families - your retirement security is at risk! Majority Leader Eric Cantor announced this week some major news on Social Security.” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) cited the statement in a subcommittee hearing about the health care law.
Except in full context, and looking back at previous, very similar statements, it appears Cantor misspoke.
An audience member asked Cantor whether Republicans embrace the Bowles-Simpson commission’s Social Security recommendations, which would both cut Social Security benefits in various ways, and raise new revenues for the program by lifting the income cap on the payroll tax.
“The fiscal commission report…represents a clear attempt to try and deal with the real issues of fiscal insolvency facing this country,” Cantor said. “I don’t think there are a lot of us on our side of the aisle that embrace the core of what that commissions recommendations are about. But I do think it does reflect something that is definitely food for discussion.”
Cantor sorta stumbled into the line that the programs “cannot exist.” But here’s what followed.
“[W]e’ve got to protect today’s seniors,” Cantor said. “We’re going to have to accept some changes as far as the rest of us. And what we’re saying is for those 55 and older do not have to worry about changes in benefits. But for the rest of us we will. We will have to do that.”
He specifically cited the bipartisan gang-of-six negotiations underway in the Senate, which may or may not produce some mix of Social Security benefit cuts and revenue raisers. There’s plenty of fodder for criticism there. And indeed, Cantor has in the past said that Republicans should embrace Rep. Paul Ryan’s “Roadmap for America’s Future,” which would phase out Social Security as we know it with a privatization scheme.
But it’s pretty far-fetched to say Cantor proposed eliminating Social Security outright for people under age 55. Cantor’s spokesman confirmed that he misspoke, and said “[t]he status quo for these programs ensures their collapse, which is why we want to strengthen them to guarantee their existence for future generations, while ensuring that the benefits promised to those 55 and older are guaranteed.”
Earlier this month on CNBC, Cantor said “We’re going to say we’re protecting today’s seniors and those nearing retirement. But for those of us 54 and under, we’re going to insist to go and deal with the fact that if these programs are going to be around, they’re going to have to look a lot different.”
Progressives, like Bernie Sanders, and presidential candidate Barack Obama pointed out that Social Security can be rendered solvent in perpetuity by simply requiring people in higher income brackets to pay Social Security payroll taxes on more of their income. Cantor, along with most Republicans and some Democrats say benefits must be cut way back, and maybe more. That’s where the debate is.
Brian Beutler is TPM's senior congressional reporter. Since 2009, he's led coverage of health care reform, Wall Street reform, taxes, the GOP budget, the government shutdown fight, and the debt limit fight. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.