Pitting Retirees Against the Disabled

When conservatives who like to whine about “welfare” are forced to be more specific, some go after the traditional if significantly less generous TANF program of cash assistance, or Medicaid, or those receiving subsidies under Obamacare. But more often these days, they attack either Disability Insurance or SNAP, programs that have experienced large increases in eligibility because of the economy or demographic trends or both.

Congressional Republicans failed last year to force the inclusion of a major reduction in SNAP eligibility in the 2014 Farm Bill. But now they appear to be going after DI, through the half-clever mechanism of pitting beneficiaries against the larger universe of Social Security retirement recipients. Here’s a quick description of the ploy from TPM’s Dylan Scott:

The incoming GOP majority approved late Tuesday a new rule that experts say could provoke an unprecedented crisis that conservatives could use as leverage in upcoming debates over entitlement reform.

The largely overlooked change puts a new restriction on the routine transfer of tax revenues between the traditional Social Security retirement trust fund and the Social Security disability program. The transfers, known as reallocation, had historically been routine; the liberal Center for Budget and Policy Priorities said Tuesday that they had been made 11 times. The CBPP added that the disability insurance program “isn’t broken,” but the program has been strained by demographic trends that the reallocations are intended to address.

The House GOP’s rule change would still allow for a reallocation from the retirement fund to shore up the disability fund — but only if an accompanying proposal “improves the overall financial health of the combined Social Security Trust Funds,” per the rule, expected to be passed on Tuesday. While that language is vague, experts say it would likely mean any reallocation would have to be balanced by new revenues or benefit cuts.

I have zero doubt Republicans will describe this rules change, now that it’s getting attention, as a measure to “protect Social Security,” even though DI is part of the same system, and the ploy may actually be aimed at producing “entitlement reforms” affecting retiree benefits as well as disability eligibility. But Democrats, led by Elizabeth Warren, do seem to be all over this with unusual alacrity:

“It’s ridiculous – but not surprising – that on the very first day of the new Congress, Republicans are manufacturing a Social Security crisis to threaten benefits for millions of disabled Americans – including 233,260 in Massachusetts alone,” Warren said on Facebook. “We can’t turn our backs on the promises we’ve made to our families, friends, and neighbors who need our help the most. House Republicans should stop playing political games to put America’s most vulnerable at risk.”

So we’ll probably see leading Republicans take a low profile on the issue for a while, as their friends in the conservative chattering classes probably ratchet up the talk about the freeloading bums on DI.

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.