The radical proposal to let Medicare and Social Security lapse, explained

Sen. Rick Scott, in a blue suit and white shirt, walking down a blue-lit hallway in the US Capitol.
Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) has proposed that all federal laws expire after five years if Congress doesn’t expressly reauthorize them. | Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Sen. Rick Scott wants every government program — even entitlements — to expire after 5 years unless Congress approves them again.

A 12-point plan from a not particularly senior member of the US Senate is usually the kind of thing that would barely cause a ripple in the discourse. But Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott’s plan to “rescue America,” as he puts it, was not designed to disappear quietly — and in its short life, it has already drawn a sharp rebuke during the State of the Union, sustained criticism from President Joe Biden, and even the disdain of Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

The 10-second elevator pitch will tell you why: Scott’s proposal would radically overhaul how the federal government operates, forcing Congress to re-pass every federal law or else let them lapse — a move that, in Democrats’ telling, would endanger much of what the government does, including beloved federal programs like Medicare and Social Security.

It’s a short proposal, with little detail to flesh it out. But on its face, its meaning is plain: Every five years, every federal law would need to be passed anew in order to stay on the books.

Every federal law! During the Trump administration and the first two years of Biden’s presidency, Congress passed more than 1,000 laws every two years, to give you a sense of the scale of the task. But Biden’s critique wasn’t about the random parts of the US Code that most people don’t even know. He slammed Scott — without naming him — for trying to end Social Security and Medicare, two entitlement programs that benefit tens of millions of Americans and are enormously popular with the public.

“Instead of making the wealthy pay their fair share, some Republicans want Medicare and Social Security to sunset,” Biden said in his State of the Union address. “It is being proposed by individuals. I’m politely not naming them, but it’s being proposed by some of you.”

It was a new twist on a familiar trope: Republican proposes cutting government benefits, Democrat attacks him for it. And it seems to have left a mark: After more than a week of uproar since the State of the Union, Scott formally revised his 12-point “rescue America” plan to specify that its provision requiring every federal law to be re-passed every five years would not, in fact, apply to Social Security and Medicare. And so, at least officially, the senator has papered over the main political weakness of his plan. The question is whether the damage is already done after a year’s worth of attacks.

As CNN reported, when Scott first introduced the idea a year ago, Biden seized on it. That campaign reached a crescendo at the State of the Union speech, where Biden’s exchange with Republicans in the crowd was the standout moment for the president, leaving Democrats marveling that Scott and the GOP had “walked right into” such an obvious political trap.

By last weekend, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell (who has a contentious relationship with Scott after the Floridian tried to oust him from leadership) was himself ripping Scott’s idea, making clear that he did not view it as a Republican idea but merely a Rick Scott idea. Scott has accused his critics of mischaracterizing his proposal, stating his support for those two programs, and hastily introduced legislation that he said would shore them up.

It was a revealing shift. Ten years ago — or 50 — this episode might have unfolded very differently. The ideological terrain has shifted after Donald Trump’s presidency, in which he won the GOP primary while promising not to cut Social Security and Medicare.

Now the party is trying to figure out its identity in a (tentative) post-Trump era. The Rick Scotts, who portray themselves as committed fiscal conservatives, want to reclaim it for small government ideology. But other Republicans aren’t as comfortable with such ideas as they used to be.

Trump changed the party’s calculus, and there might not be any going back.

A brief history of proposals to cut Medicare and Social Security

Sunset provisions, which allow laws and programs to expire unless Congress votes to continue them, came into vogue in the 1970s as a good-government proposal, the counterpart to “sunshine laws” meant to promote transparency. Sunset proposals were intended as a way to prune government programs that were inefficient or ineffective; throughout the 1970s, they were common. (Some sunset proposals at the time explicitly exempted Social Security and Medicare.) In 1975, Biden himself proposed limiting funding for existing government programs to no more than six years, an idea that the White House quickly disavowed amid the spat with Scott.

Though sunset proposals occasionally popped up in more recent years — Congress held a hearing on a sunset bill in 1998, and the libertarian Cato Institute called for sunsetting government programs in 2002 — the idea has been more or less dormant. Instead, in more recent years, Republicans targeted Social Security and Medicare specifically. President George W. Bush mounted a doomed attempt to privatize Social Security in his second term; in the early 2010s, Rep. Paul Ryan made dramatic overhauls to Social Security and Medicare part of his ambitious policy agenda.

In those days, Republicans would often defend these ideas as necessary and responsible financial stewardship. They were supposed to be the party of small government, after all. But they also faced withering and effective attacks, including during the 2012 presidential campaign, when Ryan was Mitt Romney’s vice-presidential candidate and Barack Obama called the Republican budget a plan to “end Medicare as we know it.”

Republicans have shifted on economic policy to defang Democratic attacks, but some of them want to move back

Let’s be clear: Republicans have not had some kind of come-to-Jesus moment that made them love government programs and government spending. They still propose ideas like Medicaid work requirements that would kick a lot of people off public benefits. And even for Trump, the signature policy win of his presidency was a massive tax cut for rich people and corporations, catnip for conservatives over the decades.

But they are trying to take a more measured tone on Social Security and Medicare specifically, two programs that are very important to the seniors in their base. It was a hard lesson learned from the 2012 presidential campaign, when Ryan’s budget was unpopular with seniors, and the 2016 Republican primary, in which Trump ended up steamrolling other candidates with what had been more conventional conservative views.

The problem for Republicans has always been that voters don’t want Social Security and Medicare to be cut. A 2019 Pew Research poll found that 74 percent of all Americans, including 68 percent of people who identify as Republican or lean toward that party, said no reductions should be made to Social Security benefits.

It’s a lesson that the party has finally internalized. As a showdown over raising the debt ceiling approaches, the new House Republican majority has even said that cuts to Social Security and Medicare are off the table.

That is a sharp reversal from their prior demands when a GOP House threatened to take the economy over the cliff during the Obama years. Then, Republicans in Congress and the Obama White House negotiated a deal to reduce the deficit, partly with cuts to Medicare (but not Social Security), though later Congress ended up reducing and postponing those cuts.

If you go back farther than that, McConnell himself was responsible for whipping votes in favor of George W. Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security in 2005, an episode over which he has expressed regret for their failure to pass such a bill.

But that was a lifetime ago in politics. Deficit reduction is back in vogue — it is also expected to be a focus of Biden’s proposed budget — but cutting entitlements is no longer viewed as a (politically) viable option for achieving it. Democrats certainly aren’t going to return to ideas proposed by the Obama-era Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission. And many Republicans no longer sound interested in major entitlement overhauls either.

All of that has made Rick Scott’s proposal a headache for Republicans and an opportunity for Democrats. That’s why, a year after he first proposed it, Scott’s critics are still talking about it.

Update, February 17, 10:45 am: This story was originally published on February 16 and has been updated to include Sen. Scott revising his plan so it does not affect Medicare and Social Security.

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