In tweets and campaign trail promises, President Trump pledged not to touch Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid, the three main pillars of the American social safety net. “I was the first & only potential GOP candidate to state there will be no cuts to Social Security, Medicare & Medicaid. Huckabee copied me,” Trump tweeted in 2015.
Many Congressional Republicans have wanted to cut Social Security benefits, and Rep. Sam Johnson (R-TX) introduced a bill in December 2016 to shrink checks and change the cost of living adjustments.
On Monday, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin indicated that the Trump administration may not stand in the way if Congress decided to make changes.
“The president has made it clear that on Social Security. That’s not something he’s addressing now, but if Congress wants to review that, obviously that’s within your prerogative,” Mnuchin told Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT) at a House Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on Trump’s 2018 budget.
This is not an explicit support of cuts, but as NYMag.com’s Jonathan Chait notes, it is another example of the Trump administration’s deference to Congress, something that Mnuchin has pointed to in the past.
On CNBC in May, Mnuchin said Trump didn’t have any intentions to change Social Security, but said Congress might do something.
“I will tell you as a trustee of the Social Security Trust Fund, this is something that Congress may look at,” Mnuchin said on CNBC last month. “But the president does not want to change entitlements.” When it was pointed out that this was after Trump supported the American Health Care Act and the massive Medicaid cuts included therein, Mnuchin said he was not going to comment on healthcare.
Trump stepping aside and deferring to Congress on hot issues is a shrewd strategy to pass the buck. Cutting Social Security benefits has been the third rail of politics for decades and using inaction as a backdoor to enacting policy without overt support might help the president maintain support among the members of his base who rely on Social Security. (About 65 million Americans receive some form of Social Security.)
Should a bill that pares benefits or actually get serious consideration, the Trump administration might support it via these means, though he may support it more overtly. Given that Trump has already broken these campaign promises, there are already two precedents for this—the other two of the three parts of the safety net Trump promised to protect.
Trump didn’t just give tacit support to the AHCA, which guts Medicaid by dropping 14 million people. He rather served as a whip for the bill, wrangling votes with the help of Vice President Mike Pence.
The other leg of the entitlement tripod, Medicare, may have been overshadowed by the Medicaid cuts, but the AHCA would would touch Medicare too. The bill cuts off a key funding source, a 0.9% surtax on income over $200,000. This would cut Medicare’s funding by $117 billion in the next decade, which would speed up its insolvency to 2023.