The recently averted shutdown of the U.S. government that seemed almost inevitable last week as Republicans and Democrats battled over the federal budget would have been a serious blow to the country and its economy. But the pain we just avoided is nothing compared to the havoc the nation will face if the Tea Party-led Republicans move forward with their plans to dismantle Social Security.
Haven't heard the Tea Partiers talk about ending your Social Security payment yet? Just wait.
Trust me: Whether you're receiving Social Security now or you expect to in the years ahead, your retirement benefits are not safe if the Republican Party remains in power. Here's why:
The ultra-conservative wing of the Republican Party is dominating its agenda now. That's the main reason House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) was afraid to compromise with President Obama and Senate Democrats, and accept a smaller, more straightforward budget cut to end the stalemate. Nor is there much in the current political climate to suggest that the Tea Party's ability to instill fear in other Republicans and propel its agenda will diminish any time soon.
Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.), the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has already introduced a sham of a budget for 2012. The vague "budget proposal" is a thinly disguised anti-tax Tea Party manifesto that essentially dismantles Medicare, the nation's health insurance program for senior citizens. Under Ryan's plan, Medicare would be replaced by a voucher system that would, in theory, allow senior citizens to purchase private health insurance. Among the many problematic aspects to Ryan's concoction, the worst is that the vouchers would cover only about one-third the cost of a private insurance plan that provided coverage comparable to Medicare.
If Ryan's proposal becomes law, seniors can kiss Medicare goodbye. And for most of them, that will probably mean kissing any kind of robust health care plan in their retirement years goodbye as well, unless they have the large amount of spare cash available to buy a better policy than will be available for those holding Ryan's inadequate vouchers.
First End Medicare, Then End Social Security
If Ryan and the Tea Party sense they can win and dismantle Medicare, your Social Security payment will be next.
The proposals are likely to start innocuously enough. The Tea Party's leadership will trot out statements like "Social Security is broke," (which it isn't, really) and "We have to cut payments because there's no other way to 'save' the program."
If retirees today think a little inflation is reducing their purchasing power and a making it hard to live within a budget, wait until they -- and eventually, all of us -- feel the impact of a 10% or even 20% cut in Social Security payments.
Tea Party lawmakers and other conservatives will also probably try to couple the cut in your Social Security payment with a reduction in the amount of income that's subject to the Social Security tax, as that will give their core constituency -- upper-income Americans -- yet another tax cut.
Ryan's 2012 budget plan already recommends decreasing the maximum income tax rate for individuals to 25% from 35%. Now that's what the nation needs: Having people whose annual adjusted gross income is $1 million and up pay 25% in federal income taxes, instead of 35%. It's pure genius: Cutting taxes even further for the wealthy is guaranteed to solve all of our nation's social problems.
Cutting the Social Safety Net
Perhaps you think the Tea Party wouldn't risk the political fallout of proposing cuts to Social Security, which is, after all, an extraordinarily popular program. Think again. The Tea Party hasn't shown much respect so far for programs and policies most Americans favor. In several key states, Tea Party-inspired Republicans have already succeeded in stripping most public employees of their collective bargaining rights -- the primary power workers have to negotiate fair salaries, benefits and working conditions. The Tea Party brought the nation to the brink of a damaging, and clearly unpopular federal government shutdown. And the Tea Party has already announced a plan to end Medicare.
The Tea Party appears determined to dismantle the nation's limited social safety net. It would be naive to assume that Social Security isn't next.
In the months and years ahead, the Tea Party-led GOP, if it's not stopped, will announce its plan to cut Social Security payments. And to save both Medicare and Social Security, there's only one option -- replacing Tea Party extremists in 2012 with lawmakers who will protect the programs that protect the American people.