Goosing the Means-Testing Ghost

We are led to believe that another non-negotiable congressional Republican demand at the center of the big fiscal talks is “means-testing” of Social Security and/or Medicare. This has become quite the mantra for Republicans. Means-testing Social Security benefits was one of the few unchanging policy positions Mitt Romney maintained during the 2012 cycle. Means-testing entitlements generally was articulated as the very definition of “entitlement reform” by Mitch McConnell in an interview with the Wall Street Journal immediately after the elections.

But can anyone tell you with any degree of precision what Republicans currently propose by way of supporting “means-testing?” To some extent, that bridge has long been crossed, so it shouldn’t be a matter of some big principle being vindicated. Social Security benefits are already means-tested by the pay-out formulas–and by the exposure of benefits to income taxes, which has been in place since 1993. And depending on how you look at it, so are Medicare’s, insofar as Part B and Part D premiums vary according to income. So what’s the big Republican idea? A little more along the same lines, or something more drastic? Hard to say, isn’t it?

There are also aspects of means-testing that make it a very implausible conservative policy initiative. The Right has complained for years that means-tested programs for the poor undermine work incentives. As Kevin Drum has pointed out, means-testing retirement programs could create lifelong disincentives to higher incomes and savings. And more modest means-testing wouldn’t save a lot of money (which should be evident in the fact that so many people don’t even know it already exists). In citing this “reform” as a sort of first principle, GOPers are really goosing a ghost.

So you got one “essential entitlement reform” that makes no sense and nobody likes (increasing the eligibility age for Medicare) and another that no one can quite describe. Throw in paring back cost-of-living adjustments for all federally provided benefits, which is guaranteed to infuriate many millions of people, and you’ve got quite the “reform” package.

I’ve said a lot of contemptuous things about Republicans over the last several years, but their degree of disarray right now exceeds anything I might have anticipated. And to think: if the elections had turned out differently, they might all be focused with amazing unanimity and specificity on enacting the Ryan Budget. Elections do have consequences.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.